By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
The NFL has not always been on the right side when it comes to social justice.
Likely with that in mind, the league entered a partnership with Sean “Jay-Z” Carter’s Roc Nation to be what the league called “live music entertainment strategists” in 2019. Reading beyond the press releases, the move was clearly made to help soothe a general audience’s critiques of the NFL’s racial inequalities while trying to salvage the league’s relationship with most Black and progressive-thinking fans who gave thought to, or outright boycotted the league in recent years.
Some progress has been made, but systematic racism still divides the country, much like the kneeling protests first put on by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid in 2016 divided the NFL. Jay-Z infamously said at the announcement of his upcoming work with the NFL that the league is past the kneeling stage, stating that it is time for action. It would be hard to imagine that the celebrated entertainer and business man picturing the actions becoming so drastic within a year’s time.
As streets continue to be taken over, statues tumble and new laws get proposed, action has taken over 2020 even more so than presentation and potential game-changing rhetoric took over the fight against institutional racism in the years prior to it.
With that being the case, I ask Jay-Z and the NFL, what’s next?
I understand everyone isn’t capable or willing to be an activist, yet African-American celebrities — regardless of how they reached their station in life — have an obligation to give back to the communities they came from as well as contribute to other African-American communities that need their support, especially when their community has been stroked with fear, systematic racism and police brutality. Their support matters, their popularity matters, the range of their voices matters.
“I said no to the Super Bowl/you need me I don’t need you…” were the lyrics Jay spit from the 2018 song “Apesh–” with his wife, Beyonce. Seen then as the ultimate shade to the NFL from a pair of Black artists with all the power to headline a Super Bowl half-time show, as Beyonce as arguably done twice already. As a conscious Black man that was aware of the injustices Black men currently face, hearing that poetry of activism was like a preacher preaching to the choir. It gave me life and additional wisdom to an already conscious state of mind. To then later on hear that Jay signed a deal with the NFL to lead their social justice efforts, I was ecstatic, and even wrote a column in support of that, while also keeping in mind how it played Kaep to the side.
At the time of the agreement last fall, Jay’s alignment with the NFL could be looked at as an undermining of the greater movement due to his reportedly not discussing anything regarding Kaepernick prior to the deal. However, with his high profile in society and the African-American community, if anyone can be a figure of social justice that can also speak the white man’s language, it was Jay-Z.
But like with all movements, individuals chart their own paths towards what they call progress and many bumps rise to overcome. With their overall callousness and attempting to short-cut things, the NFL showcased such bumps to our greater society.
As much as any professional sports league, arguably more so, the NFL struggles in handling social justice issues and has often times been on the wrong end of the stick. When Kaepernick peacefully protested against racial injustice, he was blackballed out of the league. President Donald Trump joined the movement and called him and anyone who would kneel during the national anthem “a son of a bitch” on national television at one of his rallies.
Some of the NFL responded with signs of unity, with even a few owners kneeling with their players. But some owners reprimanded their players if any of them protested (Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones chief among them). Even Drew Brees, one of the most philanthropic superstars in the league, openly came out saying he doesn’t support players kneeling during the national anthem, a discussion that only recently inflamed the league and caused more players than ever to commit to public protest during the (possible) upcoming NFL season.
In placating the pressure from the White House and choosing to pander to conservative fans and media over those fighting for Black rights, the league focused on the gesture of the protest, not the message of the protest. That kind of behavior makes me wonder whether the league went into business with Jay-Z not to promote social justice so much as to promote a false image and protect it?
Or is the league really trying to promote change, but through arrogant and half-informed choices unfortunately obscuring systemic mistreatment to make itself look not so bad in comparison to the police and the justice system, where stakes are much more in the “life or death” category?
When I talk to the next generation and ask them who they want to be when they get older, they often times tell me to be alive. As a Black man in America, this is quite simply one the few components we ask in life and yet, it’s not guaranteed. If you ask the many victims of these tragic killings, they tell you through their pain and agony, the shedding of family tears and the outcries for their lives in the streets: what it means to be Black men caught at the hand of murderous cops, who are hired to protect and serve them as well as the communities they live in, and often times come out in negative circumstances (dead or alive) without the justice they deserve.
As a young Black man that serves in multiple roles within society, including sports journalist and as an assistant director of mentoring program called Black Male Leadership Academy (BMLA), I can relate with the next generation. I too want to be alive to see the future of my family succeed. I want to also see the youth I mentor grow up into the successful black men and raise their families successfully and watch them give back to the African-American society. I want to be able drive and not get pulled over by the police due to racial profiling or simply because I don’t belong.
I relate with Kaepernick, as I too have used my platform to help create social change, through peaceful protests as well as giving back to the community through mentoring and acts of poetry through the pen. I have friends that peacefully protested this weekend in honor of George Floyd to make sure not just make sure the families voices are hear, but also question when will our voices as an African-American community can be heard, and they risked their lives by going to prison when the protests turned into riots.
The anguish of George Floyd’s murder is more wrenching than most, especially after going through 400 years of slavery, abuse, police brutality, inequality and injustice of every way possible. To still see till this day that Black lives don’t matter when they should, is a frustrating, disgusting, inhumane and challenging concept to accept. The pain and agony I thriving within the African-American community, and these protests are showing that we as a community have had enough.
As leaders, we have to continue to be not just be outspoken, but we should be action-takers in the fight against the injustices throughout this world, the message Jay was trying to emphasized when he mentioned his “we are past the kneeling” comments, and we need celebrities to join the fight.
Many peaceful protesters are emulating Kaepernick, by going down on one knee, and many athletes have already joined the movement, being outspoken and demonstrating their expressions for change. When sports come back, players and even coaches will continue to do what they can to step up and be the model Black citizens we ask them to be on and off from their respected sports.
Will the NFL owners stand up for justice/kneel with its players? Or will it continue to be lip service? We know you already apologized for your lack of cohesion and donated $250 million over the next 10 years to social reform –that’s great, but you didn’t say Kaepernick’s name in your apology and there are no plans to send him a personal apology for eliminating his platform on the field to protest. It has been long overdue, yet much like charges against Breonna Taylor’s murderers, we still wait.
No amount of donated money will change the legislation that’s already in place (i.e. the Rooney Rule). Reform is needed. New legislation is needed. As an artist who support Kaepernick’s message, Jay-Z sits in a position to create effective change across the football league. The ball is in your court and from whom much is given, much is required. So I must ask Jay-Z, Roger Goddell, anyone with clout — what’s next?
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media