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N.F.L. and Jay-Z Team Up on Music and Social Justice Campaign

The partnership brings together two of the country’s biggest brands, as well as the league and a vocal critic.

Looking to move past an uproar over player protests, the N.F.L. has signed a deal with the rap star and impresario Jay-Z to gain a foothold in the music business and a seal of approval from one of the country’s biggest African-American celebrities for its social justice efforts.

The deal, with Roc Nation, the rapper’s entertainment and sports company, calls for the firm to be the N.F.L.’s “live music entertainment strategist.” In that role, Roc Nation and Jay-Z will consult on entertainment, including the Super Bowl halftime show, and contribute to the league’s activism campaign, Inspire Change.

The N.F.L. is keen to portray the deal as a way to bring more high-profile entertainers to its events. It also represents an effort to quiet the long-running controversy over its handling of players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem — most notably involving Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback — and to form a bond with one of its most influential critics.

“The N.F.L. has a great big platform, and it has to be all-inclusive,” Jay-Z said in an interview this week at Roc Nation’s headquarters in Manhattan. “They were willing to do some things, to make some changes, that we can do some good.”

Roc Nation and the N.F.L. are expected to announce the deal on Wednesday. Financial terms were not available.

While the pairing may seem odd at first glance, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., said the league wants partners that will hold it to account.

“We don’t want people to come in and necessarily agree with us; we want people to come in and tell us what we can do better,” Goodell said in an interview Monday at his Midtown office. “I think that’s a core element of our relationship between the two organizations, and with Jay and I personally.”

Kaepernick’s protests — which he said were against racial injustice and police brutality — prompted dozens of other players to kneel. Their actions intensified a national debate over race and free speech, drawing pointed opinions not only from fans and sports commentators, but also former President Barack Obama and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Since then, athletes in other sports have followed Kaepernick’s lead in protesting during the anthem, including a fencer and a hammer thrower at the recently completed Pan American Games.

The N.F.L. protests sparked harsh comments from President Trump, beginning in 2017, when he urged team owners to fire Kaepernick and other protesters. The rebuke shook players and owners, but received support from Trump enthusiasts. Kaepernick was not on an N.F.L. roster at the time, but others had taken up his cause.

The issue has divided owners, league executives and locker rooms across the N.F.L., where roughly three-quarters of players are African-American. Some television executives blamed the protests for a drop in ratings in 2017. Near the end of that season, the league negotiated a deal with a coalition of players that included contributing as much as $89 million over six years to social justice causes of the players’ choosing. That effort, which was rebranded Inspire Change in January, donates money to groups fighting for criminal justice reform, employment and educational opportunities in economically challenged areas and better relations between the police and local communities.

The partnership gives Jay-Z a role in selecting and producing the country’s most-watched musical performance. The 12-minute Super Bowl halftime show is seen by more than 100 million people each year. The deal also risks Jay-Z appearing as being co-opted and neutralized by an organization he once criticized.

One of the most prominent champions of Kaepernick’s cause, Jay-Z once called Kaepernick “an iconic figure” akin to Muhammad Ali. Jay-Z wore a custom version of Kaepernick’s jersey when he performed on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017.

He also rebuffed overtures to perform at the Super Bowl — a move that other black stars followed, including Rihanna. In a recent song, he told the league, “You need me, I don’t need you.”

Now that he is working with the N.F.L., Jay-Z has either betrayed the cause to hold the organization accountable or is working to change it from the inside, depending on one’s perspective.

The N.F.L. has a track record of addressing thorny internal problems by bringing in outsiders. When the league was condemned for not doing enough to protect players from concussions and potential long-term brain damage, it pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars on research and engineering solutions, like better helmets.

It hired Ted Wells, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, to investigate whether the New England Patriots conspired to deflate footballs.

In 2014, after video was published showing the former Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, the league convened experts on domestic violence to help it create programs to address the issue, and hired a team of experts, including Lisa Friel, the former chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, to investigate cases involving players accused of harming partners.

Some critics have accused the league of using outsiders to quiet criticism, then failing to do the hard work over the long term to address often intractable problems.

“It’s a constant crisis response mode: We deal with it when we have to, and then we go into a public relations mode to clean it up,” said Rene Redwood, who has advised the league on issues of race and abuse. “In my assessment, they have not visibly addressed the domestic violence problem because they haven’t addressed the root cause.”

The deal with Jay-Z, too, may be viewed as a way to quell criticism that the league is insensitive to significant social issues important to many players.

Sitting before wall-size video screens in a dark meeting room called the Blueprint at Roc Nation’s headquarters, where the company has music, sports and streaming media divisions on four floors, Jay-Z dismissed the idea that working with the N.F.L. changed anything about his perspective. He said that whatever the N.F.L.’s intentions, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

“I have to believe that even if it’s not sincere, we’re going to get things done,” said Jay-Z, who wore a pink designer T-shirt and a black trucker cap with the logo of a nonprofit arts organization in Texas. He said he grew up a Cowboys fan, and now roots for the Giants.

Jay-Z said Roc Nation’s deal with the league allowed him to significantly expand the league’s Inspire Change initiative through a series of programs that will run throughout the year.

The programs include: “Songs of the Season,” inspirational songs from five artists that will serve as unofficial anthems to be played during N.F.L. broadcasts; a “visual album” of Super Bowl halftime shows; and “Beyond the Field,” a platform for players that may include podcasts or playlists.

These efforts may prove ancillary to the league’s goal of ensuring top-shelf entertainers for the Super Bowl, which became more difficult after Kaepernick accused the league of blackballing him.

Suddenly, the league’s marquee event had turned into a political hot potato, scaring some team owners who wanted to return the focus to the game and the spectacle it creates.

Despite the high-profile artists coming out against the league, Goodell pushed back at the notion that the N.F.L. was unable to find top acts to perform.

“You can go back a number of years and see artists who were not going to perform for any number of a variety of reasons,” Goodell said. “We don’t have any problem getting great entertainers to perform in an opportunity like this.”

To move past the crisis, earlier this year, the N.F.L. reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with Kaepernick and Eric Reid, another 49ers player, who filed grievances accusing the league of colluding to keep them off the field because of their decision to kneel during the anthem.

Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who has deep connections in the music industry and Hollywood, also pushed for the N.F.L. to align with groups working to combat social injustice, including those endorsed by celebrities. He and Goodell flew to Los Angeles in January to meet Jay-Z and ask him to help recruit entertainers for N.F.L. events and find ways to reach younger fans.

At that meeting, Goodell said, their conversation expanded to include ways to bolster social justice initiatives, some of which Jay-Z was addressing through the Reform Alliance, which is dedicated to criminal justice reform. Kraft, the rapper Meek Mill and Michael Rubin, who runs Fanatics, the sport’s merchandise retailer, are also involved in the organization.

The details of the partnership between the league and Roc Nation picked up speed after the N.F.L. draft in April. Only a small circle of executives at both organizations were privy to the discussions.

Jay-Z said he would gauge its success by criteria such as whether players’ voices are heard and whether the Super Bowl halftime show becomes “more inclusive of all types of music.”

“If we can’t get this done in, like, five years,” he said, “then we need to sit down and evaluate where we are.”

By Ken Belson and Ben Sisario

Aug. 13, 2019

The New York Times

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