Word has gotten out that Jay-Z and his company Roc Nation are partnering with the NFL. It’s a bit of a vague idea at the moment, but what we do know is that the partnership will revolve specifically around the Super Bowl halftime show (which, ironically, the rapper once famously turned down) and the NFL’s “Inspire Change” initiative for social justice. But what exactly does this mean beyond these vague details?
For one thing, it would seem to hint that the NFL is aware of its growing public perception issue. This is not to suggest, as some outlets inevitably will, that “the NFL is in trouble.” In fact, the league appears to be thriving as is. Various reports have cited climbing TV ratings for the NFL in 2018, and it remains far and away the most popular of America’s major sports leagues. Furthermore, the NFL is entering 2019 with one of its biggest new opportunities in years, with the slow-but-sure expansion of sports betting into the American fan market. After New Jersey broke the dam with new legislation, numerous other states started off on journeys to do the same. Pennsylvania has added sportsbooks, and more will soon follow. The full impact of this won’t necessarily be seen in 2019, but essentially this is the beginning of a new, lucrative side industry that will bring even more attention to the NFL (and possibly more revenue, if the league decides to get involved directly).
So, with rising ratings, unquestioned American supremacy, and promising new markets, the NFL is doing just fine. However, a league can be thriving from the standpoint of earnings and revenue and still be struggling with its public image. And this, it seems, is a fair description. Indeed, we’ve come a long way in just a few years from a time when prominent sports journalist/pundit Bill Simmons was fired from ESPN essentially for repeatedly criticizing the NFL commissioner. Now, people in media, fans, and miscellaneous celebrities frequently rain criticism on the league – and often for how it handles off-field situations, social justice issues, and political overlap. To put it more bluntly, there’s a perception among some that the league’s actions and outlook in these areas are skewed by a wealthy white male class of owners and managers, to the detriment of minority players and fans alike.
In that light, the idea of bringing Jay-Z in begins to make more sense for the league. In press releases about the partnership, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has even made some vague allusions to his own shortcomings, suggesting that the NFL “wants people to come in and tell [them] what [they] can do better.” For those who have followed Goodell’s tenure, that kind of remark will sound foreign; it’s unlike the commissioner, and strongly suggests that he’s aware of the need for a positive image shift, particularly among minority fans.
It’s when it comes to what “Inspire Change” will accomplish, however, that this whole concept becomes somewhat murky again. You can look up the league’s official descriptions of this initiative and find statements that basically amount to a vague notion of community outreach. We do know that it will boost African-American history education in some 175 schools in “high-need and high-poverty areas.” This in a vacuum is a terrific thing, and it’s certainly wonderful that the league is doing it. At the same time, however, in the context of the league’s own social justice issues in recent years, it’s also ironic to the point of comedy.
The greatest controversy that has plagued the NFL in recent years is that of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police violence, and the resulting turmoil. Inaccurately branded as a “national anthem protest,” Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee wound up in his being ostracized from the league. People ranging from TV football pundits to team owners suggested (or threatened) that players following Kaepernick’s lead should or would be benched, and the president of the United States referred to any player who takes a knee as a “son of a bitch.” All of this happened because Kaepernick wanted to call attention to the unfair treatment of people of color in America. And through it all, Goodell had virtually nothing of substance to say, and certainly no support to offer Kaepernick or minority communities.
That doesn’t mean that those 175 schools won’t be getting a vital boost in historical education, but it does make this whole idea more complicated. Can the NFL really be trusted to make this meaningful when the idea stands in such sharp contrast to recent events? Will Jay-Z’s decision to throw his weight behind the partnership go beyond boosting the NFL’s image and actually shift feelings and perspectives among owners?
These questions can’t be answered yet. For now, we should at least applaud the idea and its potential. At the same time though, the NFL’s own actions these last few years have made it easy to view this partnership with a degree of skepticism.