Opinion: Jay-Z deserves the benefit of the doubt as he joins forces with the NFL

Let’s give Jay-Z a chance.

Sharp reactions have sprung up in the wake of the NFL’s pact that makes the hip-hop mogul the overseer of entertainment and social justice initiatives.

Some see it as a money/power move for Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Hov is selling out, others say. He’s simply assisting this self-serving move by the NFL, whose officials care only about protecting their image.

It’s true these are billionaires at work: The league’s owners and Jay-Z himself. And few do anything without dollars and cents in mind. Everybody’s throwing around the Jay-Z lyric, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

But let’s at least give Jay-Z the benefit of the doubt here. Let’s see what exactly he has planned as he rolls up his sleeves and prepares to position the most powerful sports league to better assist its players’ efforts to positively affect the lives of the underprivileged in their communities and country.

As hip-hop’s first billionaire has said, he doesn’t need the NFL as a platform. But the league wants his help, and seeing an opportunity, he’s ready for the challenge.

Of course, you can’t talk about the NFL and social justice initiatives without thinking of Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback started this whole thing in 2016 when he began protesting systematic oppression during the national anthem. Kaepernick’s decision to use his platform as a professional football player proved costly. He found himself out of work the following offseason, and NFL owners have blackballed him ever since, signing countless inferior quarterbacks to address depth needs in the three years since Kaepernick first took a knee.

Because of that, every time the NFL does something associated with the fight for social justice, officials always draw a side eye. Y’all care enough to throw some dollars that way, but Kap’s still blackballed, huh?

Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit, which the two sides reached a settlement over, basically was the nail in the coffin of his career. Former 49ers teammate and current Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid filed a collusion suit of his own and also reached a settlement but remains employed. But it seems like there’s no coming back for Kaepernick, who is the face of a Nike campaign and maintains that he still wants to play professional football.

Jay-Z has joined forces with the NFL. (Photo: Ben Hider, AP)

Jay-Z has been a supporter of Kaepernick’s. He’s worn his jersey while performing on TV. And the rapper has used his voice to lobby for change in America, focusing on some of the same areas of oppression as Kaepernick’s camp. That's why the Hov drew criticism for joining forces with the same league that continues to pass over Kaepernick despite frequent injury-induced needs for quarterback depth.

But let’s not get it twisted. It’s absolutely possible for Jay-Z to both support Kaepernick while also helping the league better wage this war on racism and oppression in America. As Jigga said at the news conference this week, "We've moved past kneeling."

He later explained to my colleague Lorenzo Reyes, “We forget that Colin's whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice. In that case, this is a success. This is the next phase. There are two parts of protesting. You go outside and you protest, and then the company or the individual says, 'I hear you. What do we do next?'

"For me, it's action,” Jay-Z continued. “What are we gonna do with it? Everyone heard, we hear what you're saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you're saying. So what are we gonna do? We're reaching millions and millions of people, but we're still stuck on Colin not having a job."

Maybe on the surface it sounds like Jay-Z no longer cares about Kaepernick. But that’s not what he’s saying. The problem in America is much bigger than Kaepernick. That’s why the quarterback initially decided to take a stand. He wanted to be a voice for those who had none.

Jay-Z wants to do the same. That need remains. That’s why he’s willing to join forces with the NFL regardless of Kaepernick’s employment status. Short of buying a team and signing Kaepernick himself, Jay-Z has no power in that area. But he can still have an effect in other regards.

Maybe Kap and Reid were rubbed the wrong way by Jay-Z’s stance. OK, not maybe. They were. Kaepernick’s girlfriend criticized Hov on social media. Reid told reporters, “For you to get paid to go into an NFL press conference and say that we're past kneeling? Again, asinine. Players Coalition 2.0, he got paid to take the bullets he's taking now because we're not having it."

But let’s not overlook something. Kaepernick and Reid took the league’s money, too. They did so in the settlement, and Reid is still collecting NFL paychecks as a member of the Panthers.

The Players Coalition 2.0 comment was directed at the group of players who initially intended to join Kaepernick’s fight and solicit support from the league’s owners to help communities, lobby lawmakers for criminal justice reform and more. But Kaepernick didn't attend any of those meetings, and he and Reid weren’t happy with the resources that the league pledged to the Players Coalition.

Basically, Jay-Z isn’t handling his fight for the ultimate goal in the way that Reid and Kaepernick would like, so they aren’t having it.

Responding to a question about a rumor that Jay-Z has desires to become a part owner of an NFL team, Reid said, “Jay-Z claimed to be a supporter of Colin, wore his jersey, told people not to perform at the Super Bowl because of the treatment that the NFL did to Colin, and now he’s going to be a part owner? It’s kind of despicable.”

First, there’s currently no truth to the report that Carter is going to become part owner of a team, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Second, Jay-Z explained this week that he told Travis Scott not to perform at the Super Bowl because he would have had a minimal role in the halftime show. But even if he did want to join an ownership group, I’m not understanding what’s despicable about Jay-Z seeking to join those ranks to see whether he could make an even bigger impact. Jay-Z and Reid’s checks both bear the shield.

I polled a number of players about their thoughts on the league’s partnership with Jay-Z, and the consensus was that if Hov wanted to donate time and resources to join their fight, so be it. It’s too early to tell exactly how he will affect the league or the players’ efforts.

But he should at least get the chance to show what he can do before everyone passes judgment on whether this is a potential game-changing partnership or merely window dressing.

If members of the Players Coalition are willing to see how this plays out, when they’re the ones working the hardest to spark change, so too should we.

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