Looking to move past more than two years of national uproar, which started when football players began to kneel during the national anthem, 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 get 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,” a role that will see Roc Nation and Jay-Z consulting on entertainment, including the Super Bowl halftime show, and contributing to the league’s activism campaign, Inspire Change.
The N.F.L. is keen to portray the Roc Nation 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 by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback — and to form a bond with its most vigilant and 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. “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 set to announce the deal on Wednesday. Financial terms were not available.
N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league wants partners who tell it when it behaves badly.
“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 at his Midtown office Monday. “I think that’s a core element of our relationship between the two organizations, and with Jay and I personally.”
Kaepernick’s gesture — which he called a protest against racial injustice and police brutality — prompted dozens of other players to kneel and 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.
It also brought harsh comments from President Trump, beginning in 2017, when he urged the league’s owners to fire Kaepernick and other protesters — comments that shook players and owners alike but also received fervent 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. Late in 2017, 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, opportunities in economically challenged areas and better relations between the police and local communities.
While the partnership gives Jay-Z a role in selecting and producing the country’s most-watched music performance — the 12-minute Super Bowl halftime show is seen by more than 100 million people each year — it also brings the risk of being seen as co-opted and neutralized by an organization he once criticized.
One of the most prominent champions of Kaepernick’s cause, Jay-Z once called him “an iconic figure” akin to Muhammad Ali, and 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 — and told the league in a recent song, “You need me, I don’t need you.”