Jay-Z, The NFL and Reasonable Doubt

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 14: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jay Z at the Roc Nation and NFL Partnership Announcement at Roc Nation on August 14, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

When Jay-Z wrote and released “The Black Album” in 2003, it was supposed to be a (Black) swan song — well, it was advertised as such.

We remember the album for “Change Clothes,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and that epic mic drop on “What More Can I Say.” Yet there’s a telling commentary on the eighth track off the album, “Moment of Clarity”:

Music business hate me ‘cause the industry ain’t make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since (wooo!)
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
Fuck perception! Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most important
And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win
So next time you see the homie and his rims spin
Just know my mind is working just like them (rims, that is)

Folks have pulled the “Common Sense” and “I can’t help the poor” one-liners and turned them into commentaries on their lonesome, but it is important to look at the entirety of that second verse.

It is, in many ways, a declaration of capitalism. “F— perception! Go with what makes sense!”

That declaration is important, because it makes Jay’s decision henceforth more understandable. Not justifiable. Understandable. It lacks depth to suggest Jay is a “sellout,” because that general characterization doesn’t allow for accurate criticism of the decisions he makes — for better or for worse.

Rather than say Jay-Z is selling out, let’s just say he’s “playing the game” — the same excuse we make for not only taking on bad jobs, but also bad politics and relationships, for the promise of security and pay. And yes, it is a dangerous game.


Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played the game in three years. That reminder was posted by Kaepernick himself on Twitter on August 14, in a 2-minute video that began with this text:




We shouldn’t need that reminder, but we do. This was always about more than Colin Kaepernick. It was about the people — Black people. It was always about systemic oppression, shown viscerally through police brutality and injustices extended to and through environmental and economic racism. 

The partnership between Jay-Z and the NFL was destined to be criticized, not because of the nature of social media or because our society is extremely polarized. It was justifiably criticized because social justice and entertainment aren’t two properties that can be mixed and packaged so callously.

When Jay-Z says the equivalent of “we’ve moved past kneeling,” it isn’t just a slight to Colin Kaepernick. It is a slight to the reasons — beautiful, yet oppressed Black people — for which Kaepernick kneeled.

And yet the oppression that exists in the NFL is deeper than Kaepernick. There’s the story of former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, a Black man. who was literally fired in a calendar year. He was hired on January 22, 2018 and fired on New Year’s Eve after a three-win season. Wilks didn’t even get an adequate chance to build a winning tradition. He was replaced by a white college coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who had a career 35-40 record. That trend has befallen the likes of former Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph, and those coaches take virtual demotions as coordinators. Meanwhile, another coach with a losing record, Adam Gase, was not only hired by the New York Jets, but allowed to serve as an interim general manager for nearly a month.

That’s just the coaches. We know what the players deal with — being caught between white billionaire owners and a leisure-class fan base, a dynamic beautifully described in Howard Bryant’s The Heritage. And despite the fact that players put their lives and livelihoods on the line on virtually every down, there are still tired narratives of how much players are worth and whether they’re “giving 100 percent.” All of this with the potential of a work stoppage on the horizon in an American culture where we inexplicably side with management over the labor force, even as most of us are punching the clock.

It’s the height of hypocrisy, and I must ask Jay, in Nas’ voice and inflection from “Ether”: 

And these the guys you choose to make company with?

What’s sad is I love you cause you’re my brother
You traded your soul for riches


Of COURSE Eric Reid is taking this personally. He has skin in the game and his brother is on the sidelines.

“… everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying [in Kaepernick’s underlying message]. So what are we gonna do? … [Help] millions and millions of people, or we get stuck on Colin not having a job.” — Jay

“These aren’t mutually exclusive. They can both happen at the same time! It looks like your goal was to make millions and millions of dollars by assisting the NFL in burying Colin’s career.” — Reid

Then, an inquirer asked how Reid could attack Jay-Z’s partnership when Reid, in fact, was in the NFL. And this is where depth is important, as Reid explained:

“You & some others seem to misunderstand that we had no beef with the NFL until they started perpetuating the systemic oppression that we are fighting by blackballing Colin and then me,” Reid wrote. “Nah I won’t quit playing but I will be a royal pain in the NFL’s a** for acting like they care about people of color by forming numerous disingenuous partnerships to address social injustice while collectively blackballing Colin, the person who brought oppression and social injustice to the forefront of the NFL platform.”

It makes one wonder why Reid and Kaepernick settled with the NFL if they felt so strongly. Was it because they knew the players, and by extension, the fans, gave up on them? Was it to recoup losses? Did they think taking on the League was a losing proposition? Personally, I felt that they should’ve fought the NFL to the end. But — that was truly THEIR decision to make. They had skin in the game.

Saying the equivalent of “all they did was take a knee” is akin to Cedric The Entertainer’s comments about Rosa Parks in the movie Barbershop. “Rosa Parks ain’t do nothing but sit her a— down!” seems provocative and, with the context of Claudette Colvin, may be compelling. It doesn’t make those comments any less disrespectful, and ultimately trivializes the struggle. 

And no — Kaepernick doesn’t have the social justice franchise cornered. But think about that for a second — the idea of social justice being a “franchise.” It just shows how corporate- and capitalist-minded our society is.

“I’m overchargin’ n—s for what they did to the Cold Crush 
Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoe’d us.”
— Jay-Z


“It’s a standing ovation and a full embrace to the hip hop culture, first and foremost. And, for those that heard the lyric, Jay-Z saying that he was going to overcharge people for what they did to the Cold Crush, it’s actually happening.” — Jalen Rose on Get Up

To quote Dead Prez, it’s bigger than hip-hop. It’s about the continuing American tradition of profiting off of Black labor. It’s ironic for Rose, he who has been vocal about the failings of the NCAA, to mention the Cold Crush lyric. 

There’s no nobility when Jay-Z, along with the NFL, profits off the sacrifices and conscientiousness of Kaepernick. The optics of Jay-Z “skinning and grinning” with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are bad enough. But to think of Robert Kraft — with his ties to Donald Trump and the sex scandal allegations — “brokering” a deal between Jay and Goodell reek of establishment politics. And in this case, politics have made strange bedfellows.

That partnership, in and of itself, makes Jay-Z’s previous goodwill gestures seem more like currency —clout-building — instead of actual efforts to uplift our people. And that currency is being exploited by Goodell, Kraft and the owners in “Animal Farm”-like fashion:

The pigs and farmers return to their amiable card game, and the other animals creep away from the window. Soon the sounds of a quarrel draw them back to listen. Napoleon and Pilkington have played the ace of spades simultaneously, and each accuses the other of cheating. The animals, watching through the window, realize with a start that, as they look around the room of the farmhouse, they can no longer distinguish which of the cardplayers are pigs and which are human beings.

In other words, it’s business as usual.

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