With this focus on the vague ideal of inclusivity and the imperfect parallel of musical popularity, the partnership shares an uneasy corporate sensibility with the rapper’s investment in Promise, an app that bills itself as a tool for decarceration—and that has been criticized by activists for its potential to instead expand the reach of carceral surveillance. By papering over root issues in favor of feel-good start-up speak, the NFL deal echoes other businesses’ attempts to address racism, including the popular route of mandating dubiously effective training sessions after acts of so-called bias. In his role with the NFL, Jay-Z follows in the footsteps of rappers such as Common, who participated in Starbucks’ sensitivity seminars after two black men were detained in one of the franchise’s Philadelphia stores. This kind of celebrity guidance gestures toward justice—such programs do name an issue, after all—but the results often lend themselves more readily to positive PR for the institutions than to tangible changes for the communities they purport to serve.
Read: Roger Goodell’s empty letter to the NFL
This mode of engagement also notably diverges from the more direct ways other entertainers, athletes included, have contributed their resources, particularly to bail funding, the category of aid many criminal-justice activists cite as the most powerful. The Washington cornerback Josh Norman and the New Orleans linebacker Demario Davis, for example, helped pay the $50,000 needed to bail the college student Jose Bello out of detention, where he’d been held for 89 days after reading a poem criticizing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a public forum in California this May. “I live my life in frustration,” Bello said then, in his poem titled “Dear America.” “Private prisons, political funding, mass incarceration—you make the connection. I speak for the victims that pay for this scam.”
Both Norman and Davis are members of the Players Coalition, which is guided by a task force of 12 players and uses NFL funding to make grants to the nonprofits of its members’ choosing. The coalition was co-founded in 2017 by the former Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins following Kaepernick’s kneeling protest. At the start of the 2018 season, the coalition published an open letter in The Players’ Tribune emphasizing its members’ personal connections to the “potent pain of watching police violence.” The letter, titled “The Fight Continues,” praised Kaepernick’s galvanizing efforts and reflected a weariness with the media’s seemingly singular focus on protesting:
Other players have worked to raise awareness of these issues in different ways, although the media still remains hyper-focused on talking about “the anthem.” We have made trips to Capitol Hill, gone on ride-alongs with police officers and held meetings with grassroots organizations, community advocates, public defenders and progressive prosecutors. We have watched bail hearings during which people have been locked up not because they posed a public-safety threat, but because they were too poor to pay their cash bail. And as we learned, we also worked. We lobbied for criminal justice reform in New York, Pennsylvania and Boston, pushed for the restoration of voting rights in Florida and Louisiana, and for prosecutor accountability across the country. We hosted D.A.–candidate forums in multiple states, including California and Missouri. This is just a sampling of what we have done.
Though the coalition has dealt with internal strife (and seen several early members depart), it worked with the league to spearhead the Inspire Change initiative in January. The players’ efforts span both educational and lobbying initiatives; they speak and write with an urgency that contrasts with the languid tone Goodell often adopts and with the commercial nature of Jay-Z’s language. As the league and interested players continue this social-justice work, Jay-Z’s and Goodell’s claims about Kaepernick’s involvement may become all the more puzzling. The former quarterback’s support may not be necessary for them to achieve their stated goals. Still, their uncertain relationship to Kaepernick mirrors their distance from activists and incarcerated people with direct knowledge of the issues initially highlighted by the kneeling protests.
With Jay-Z now at the helm of the entertainment–social justice partnership, the league will likely experience a boost in credibility among those with a passing interest in progressive reforms. But whether the NFL, or Jay-Z, will concretely improve the lives of marginalized Americans remains far more unclear.