Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins supports ‘College Behind Bars,’ a prison documentary The four-part PBS series airs on Nov. 25 and 26 at 9 p.m.

NEW YORK — In between his busy football schedule, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins sat in a room with alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that allows men and women to work toward college degrees while incarcerated. He listened to the stories of the initiative’s alumni who proved that they would not let the prison system define who they were as human beings.

They walked in as inmates and left prison as college graduates determined to become productive members of society. Their stories are documented in a PBS series, College Behind Bars, airing on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

On Tuesday, Jenkins greeted a sold-out crowd at the Apollo Theater in New York City for a special screening of College Behind Bars. As a social justice advocate and co-founder of the Players Coalition, an organization composed of NFL players designed to build support, challenge policies and bring awareness to issues that matter most in black communities, Jenkins threw his support behind the film.

The documentary, directed and produced by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, follows more than a dozen incarcerated men and women over the course of four years and details the setbacks and triumphs faced on their journeys to become college graduates. Throughout the film, which bounces between six New York correctional facilities that support the BPI curriculum, men and women are shown studying subjects ranging from genetics to intermediate Chinese.

College Behind Bars

College Behind Bars airs on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.

Cody Slusher

“We’ve been conditioned to have an image of what inmates look like when in reality, they are citizens like all of us. We just paint them in this narrative in order to punish them,” Jenkins said before the screening. “But now, I think it is time for us to be more restorative in a way that we deal with incarceration knowing that inevitably, the majority of these people are going to come back in this society.”

There are 51,000 men and 2,400 women incarcerated in New York state, according to the documentary. More than 900 inmates are seeking an education, and 300 are actively enrolled in BPI at a cost of $8,000 per student per year. About 600 alumni have been released from prison and fewer than 4% have gone back, Jenkins told the packed audience.

Besides discussing the costs to taxpayers for education behind bars, the documentary revisits whether prisoners should receive Pell Grants again. Until 1993, incarcerated men and women were eligible for Pell Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965. But a year later, after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed under the Clinton administration, Pell Grant funding was stripped from prisoners hoping to receive a college education while incarcerated.

“I thought I knew a lot about American history, but I was surprised to learn that, for decades, college was commonplace in prisons across America. But with the 1994 crime bill, Congress and the Clinton administration banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people,” said Ken Burns, the film’s executive producer. “Both Republicans and Democrats were on board with this. The vote wasn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars. It was about punishment and denying opportunity. Eliminating Pell Grants for people in prison cut $35 million from the federal budget. That might sound like a lot, but if you consider at the same time, again as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, Congress committed $10 billion to build more prisons — enough money to fund college in prisons for 200 years.”

Now, supporters are pushing for a bipartisan bill known as the Restoring Education and Learning Act to reverse the ban.

“We’re encouraging people to write and hit up their Congress reps to make sure they do that so they can look at initiatives like BPI and see how much success they’re having and how little the cost is compared to their incarceration,” Jenkins said. “If we can keep people out of prison, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that it happens.”

Advocacy has always been a focal point for Jenkins, and besides supporting films such as College Behind Bars, Jenkins has been working on projects of his own through Listen Up Media, a company he founded in 2018. Much like the storytelling in College Behind Bars, Jenkins’ vision for his media company is to change the negative narratives often portrayed through television and film by giving marginalized groups the power to tell their own stories. Recently, Jenkins was the executive producer for the company’s first film, Black Boys, which will debut at the South by Southwest Festival next year.

Jenkins’ work continues on the football field as well, leading the Players Coalition and advocating for change within the NFL. In August, the NFL announced a new partnership with rapper and business mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to help with the league’s live game entertainment, but also to boost social justice awareness.

“Everybody was kind of on alert when Roc Nation comes on board and obviously made news,” Jenkins said. “But one of the things [the Players Coalition] wanted to do was really sit back and see what their intentions were, what their plan was and how they wanted to fit into it. So far, they’ve come in and really want to be a support to and amplify the voices of players. They committed a ton of resources and dollars, not to Players Coalition but to the initiative and really drawing attention and awareness. They do that better than anybody. So, we’ll continue to try to work with them on furthering our initiatives, do some storytelling and really amplify this more than we have been able to already.”

Jenkins expressed his disappointment that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still without a team, but also believes it is up to the players to continue to push the envelope when it comes to social justice issues and the NFL. With the help of Roc Nation and the continuation of serious conversations around the important issues, Jenkins is content with the direction in which things are heading and hopes that players continue to take advantage of letting their voices be heard.

“As long as we have the platform, we need to push it as far as we can. And adding people like Jay-Z and Roc Nation can help us do that,” Jenkins said. “I think the league, while it hasn’t been always smooth sailing, has put up funds, has given a platform and I think while it’s there, we’ll take advantage of it.”

Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart The first-year Washington Wizards point guard is still trying to come to grips with losing his close friend seven months later

Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom collected a litany of titles during his short, yet prolific life. Grammy-nominated rapper. Rollin’ 60s Crip. Community activist. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Lauren London’s soulmate. Emani and Kross’ father.

And Isaiah Thomas’ favorite artist — though their marathon, a bond dating back more than a decade, is far deeper than rap. Tattooed on the Washington Wizards point guard’s left leg are two checkered flags and an all-caps mantra, “I been fighting battles up a steep hill.”

“That’s my life story,” Thomas said shortly after the Wizards’ practice in early October. The two-time All-Star made his season debut Oct. 26 for Washington after recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He posted an impressive 16 points, three rebounds and five assists in 20 minutes in a 124-122 loss in San Antonio.

The lyrics inked on his skin derive from the now self-written eulogy “Racks In The Middle” from Thomas’ close friend turned guardian angel. Hussle was gunned down in front of his South Central Los Angeles-based Marathon clothing store on March 31. Eric Holder, 29, is facing trial in his murder. Thomas also cherishes another Hussle-inspired tat saying “TMC,” short for “The Marathon Continues” on his right shoulder. It’s an adage that defined their friendship, the similar trajectory of their careers and their ability to find strength after immeasurable grief in both of their lives. Thomas losing his sister and Hussle losing a close childhood friend within months of each other in 2017.

“That’s what it was. We had each other to lean on,” Thomas said. “We went through real-life situations that a lot of people can’t relate to.”

Hussle’s murder shook hip-hop to its core and sent emotional shock waves across the pop culture universe. His death particularly resonated in the NBA community, where he held close friendships with players James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Stephen Curry, Wilson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and several more.

“[Ballplayers] come from the same environment. They going through the same struggle. They’re just attacking it through their gifts on the court or on the field,” Hussle said in a 2018 interview. “Likewise, we’ll be in the studio and have the playoffs on mute and go back and watch classic performances. And just be like, ‘Look at the zone they was in.’ We both feed off each other.”

Hussle’s bond with Thomas was uniquely poignant. One built off similar self-made, get-it-out-the-mud, rags to riches orbits. Hussle was a child of South Central Los Angeles’ slums who had risen to the cusp of mainstream stardom at the time of his death. And Thomas from last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to undersized superstar point guard and now veteran aiming to prove that a string of injuries aren’t the final professional chapter of his marathon.

Thomas signed with the Wizards following one season with the Nuggets in July. He did so by paying homage to Hussle via Twitter through lyrics applicable to his journey’s newest chapter. As the Wizards start the season for the first time without John Wall in nearly a decade, Thomas will have an opportunity to play valuable minutes as a floor general. The eight-year veteran has coined this season his “victory lap” — an homage to Hussle’s Grammy-nominated final project. “When [Nipsey] came out with Victory Lap, I wasn’t able to play like I wanted to. I wanna show the world I can play at a high level like before I got injured.”

Hussle will be with Thomas for every game this season both in spirit and in playlist. But Thomas hasn’t yet given himself the emotional real estate to ponder how he’ll react not seeing Hussle courtside at his games for the first time since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas hasn’t let go of Hussle. Out of love and loyalty, he won’t. And out of confusion and pain, he refuses.

“I can’t even explain it. To this day it don’t seem real,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “A person that positive and that genuine to everybody, anybody, it’s like that shouldn’t happen. They always say, ‘The good die young,’ and it’s really like that.”

Every marathon begins with a first step. In the University of Washington’s locker room in the fall of 2008, each member of the men’s basketball team had a chance to be team DJ. Freshman forward Darnell Gant, a Crenshaw High School graduate, used his opportunity to put on for his South Central brethren. One of Hussle’s earliest hits, the Kriss Kross “Jump”-inspired, but code of the street-driven “Hussle In The House” had recently become the MC’s first introduction to some of his earliest fans outside of Los Angeles.

“I was playing [Nipsey],” said Gant. “Then I remember Isaiah coming up to me in the locker room.”

“Who’s that?” Thomas asked.

“This Nipsey from Crenshaw.”

From there, Gant gladly offered his fellow freshman Thomas an immediate curriculum on Hussle. One of the hardest new acts to emerge out of California since The Game dropped The Documentary in 2005. An artist with a vision for his community wise beyond his years — and whose graphic street narratives of Los Angeles were scribed with John Singleton-like precision. Gant never knew Hussle personally, but his OG’s did. All Gant was doing was paying it forward by putting his teammate onto hometown game. He had no way of knowing an otherwise innocent locker room conversation would help inspire an unbreakable bond.

Isaiah Thomas (second from left) and Nipsey Hussle (center) attend the Nipsey Hussle album release party for Victory Lap at Medusa Lounge on Feb. 25, 2018, in Atlanta.

Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

Thomas took his education on Hussle far beyond UW’s training facilities. He devoured every piece of Hussle content he could find on the Internet. Thomas would tirelessly tweet Hussle’s lyrics, attaching the @NipseyHussle handle to make sure the rapper would notice the admiration. Hussle, an avid basketball fan with a respectable game himself, soon began following Thomas. The two swapped messages and months later met for the first time at a February 2009 show at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo while Hussle was on The Game’s “LAX” Tour.

“It was genuine love on both sides. He knew who I was, just from playing basketball. I knew who he was and he was up-and-coming [like me],” Thomas reflected. “He was a real genuine person and his energy just rubbed off on everybody in the room. It was dope from day one.”

Thomas and Hussle’s marathons ran at similar paces. Their progress was mutually inspirational. Thomas earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during the 2008-09 season. Hussle being featured on the 2010 XXL Freshmen cover alongside future stars J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa. Thomas firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most prolific scorers and named Pac-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore — and honorable mention All-American as a junior. And Hussle transitioning from his critically acclaimed Bullets Ain’t Got No Names mixtape series into The Marathon and The Marathon Continues.

By the summer of 2011, Thomas and Hussle had grown far beyond celebrity acquaintances. They were friends with a deep respect for the other’s craft and dedication. Days after being drafted by the Kings, Thomas took to Facebook expressing his desire to have Hussle perform at his draft party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas dreamed it, then Hussle real life’d it.

“[Nipsey] did the whole Marathon mixtape,” Thomas said still in awe. “Usually guys do a few songs, then get up out there. He did every song on there. He just showed real genuine love to my city. From that day forward, we would text, we would call. Every time I’m in L.A., I would go by the shop. He’d send me Marathon clothing. We’ve been really close since then.”

Their marathons would continue analogous paths. Hussle’s vision for music, but his growing business empire caused an entire industry to take notice despite the absence of Billboard chart-topping recognition. In 2013, Jay-Z made headlines when he purchased 100 copies of Hussle’s Crenshaw mixtape being sold at $100 per disc. The entire time, both celebrated the other’s win as their own. Thomas would bounce from Sacramento to Phoenix and to Boston — each stop establishing him as a bona fide scoring threat with unassailable heart.

“To see [Isaiah] make his moves in the NBA, go give n—-s hell last season and just run up his value. I look at his career a lot like I look at mine. His trajectory — he proved himself,” Hussle said, expressing his admiration for Thomas. “He made himself valuable. Against a lot of odds. And so I f— with I.T., heavy.”

All marathons present moments of self-doubt. And friendship has a profound way of evolving through tragedy. By 2017, Thomas was one of basketball’s most venomous scorers, averaging 28.9 points. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” for a string of heroic performances throughout the season leading the Celtics to 53 wins. The watershed campaign led to Thomas’ second consecutive All-Star berth. What had been a season-long coronation for Thomas as a true NBA superstar soon gave way to disaster. On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas, Thomas’ younger sister, died in a car accident in Washington state. Thomas, in a heroic performance for the ages, would drop 33 points in a Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls a day later. (Boston would win the series in six.) In Thomas’ corner the entire time was a familiar friend. Hussle’s texts messages about looking catastrophe in the face and continuing “run[ing] your race” provided invaluable moments of peace and motivation that Thomas needed.

“He sent a really long text to me just being inspiring to keep going, knowing that life is a marathon,” said Thomas. “He always been that type of friend. It’s always been real genuine love. A marathon is tough. Life is tough. That was probably the biggest thing that I would keep in my heart. Just keep running your race no matter what.”

Five months later, Hussle’s childhood friend and business partner Stephen “Fats” Donelson was murdered while standing outside a marijuana dispensary where he was employed. Donelson’s death hit Hussle extremely hard at a time in his life and career were trending upward toward the release his highly anticipated debut album in Victory Lap. Hussle would later commemorate Fats on the aforementioned “Racks In The Middle.” “Damn I wish my n—- Fats was here/ How you die at 30-something after banging all them years,” Hussle pleaded in 2019’s most chilling verse. “Grammy-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”

“When Fats died,” Thomas said, “I reached out to him and it was just like, ‘I’m here for you if you need me. I know you got a thousand people in your corner, but if you ever need to talk, you know I’m here.’ ”

Celebrate every victory during a marathon, because the last will never announce itself beforehand. Hussle and Thomas saw a reflection in themselves in the other. The “Blue Laces 2” MC was particularly prideful when his friend made his season debut with the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 13. Thomas smiled when seeing checkered flag emojis, symbolic for Hussle’s marathon edict, appear in his inbox.

“I know he was just about to send me some new music, actually the last time we had talked,” said Thomas.

Days after that conversation, the Nuggets were preparing, coincidentally, to host the Washington Wizards. Thomas was going through pregame routines, taking him away from his phone. By the time he returned, the news had already spread. Nipsey Hussle dead at 33. Thomas sat in a daze. The last thing on his mind was basketball. He didn’t play that night. Almost two years after the worst news of his life following losing his sister, now Thomas had another soul-piercing loss to manage. Nothing felt real.

“I just feel like coming home,” Thomas remembered telling his wife, Kayla, after receiving the news.

Around the same time, Thomas’ former college teammate Gant was getting off work in Los Angeles. The city was already paralyzed with a wicked elixir of fear, anger and depression. The two former teammates swapped messages, Gant more so checking on his friend whom he had introduced to Hussle’s music a decade earlier. He admired from afar how Hussle attended Thomas’ games, often donning Thomas’ jerseys. But now he was concerned about Thomas’ well-being.

“Losing [his sister] Chyna, I knew if he took that hard, he was gonna do the same thing with Nip,” said Gant. “I took it as he lost a family member.”

“That was a really good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He meant a lot to me. [Nipsey] was like a brother, for sure.”

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Nip Hussle the GREAT! RIP family @nipseyhussle 🏁

A post shared by Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) on Apr 2, 2019 at 12:39pm PDT

With a new season underway, Thomas is excited for the opportunity in front of him in the nation’s capital. But make no mistake, Thomas is still very much grieving. He will be for quite some time, if not the rest of his life. Thomas’ eyes become glossy at the mention of Hussle’s name. He laughs at the funny memories — he refuses to say what his favorite memory of Hussle courtside is, choosing to keep that between him and his friend. But the weight of the loss visibly sits on his shoulders. How Thomas stares off to a different part of the room. How he fidgets with his hands when speaking. How he remains silent when trying to gather the correct words. Just the thought of Hussle oftentimes dictates his body language.

A natural human reaction to any uncomfortable or painful event in life is to develop tangible steps on how to resolve it. Grief, says Washington-based clinical psychologist Justin S. Hopkins, doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows, and trigger points such as birthdays or anniversaries are always looming. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that grief continues in many different forms long after a person is lost,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that you have to continue to manage, process and make meaning of losing someone and how you remember them. And how you continue to love them long after they’re gone.”

Loss has a way of clarifying the magnitude of life. Death, in particular the passing of a close loved one, is incredibly difficult to compartmentalize and move on as if it didn’t happen.

“Disbelief is a really common aspect of grieving,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to accept that someone you love will continue to have a relationship through your memories, but is no longer here physically. That’s really, really hard to take in. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time and a lot of processing.”

Thomas continues his marathon with a lifetime of Hussle-curated memories. He’s only gotten emotional once over the past seven months. That was April 11, the day he saw Hussle laid to rest. Being in the Staples Center that day was an emotional juxtaposition for Thomas. Less than a year had passed since he was with Hussle at the same arena as he performed at the 2018 BET Awards. Part of Thomas refuses to accept what he knows is the reality. He snickers at Hussle becoming a meme during last season’s Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets fight that involved Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — Courtside, goin viral when them punches thrown, Hussle rapped posthumously on Rick Ross’ “Rich N—a Lifestyle.”

“It was funny to see that picture,” Thomas said, chuckling, “because that’s what most dudes in those types of situations has been in [do] … you’re going to pull up your pants and be ready.”

For Thomas, it all goes back to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. His whole life story was on that block, on that corner, Thomas says. Every time he’d touch down in L.A., Hussle would meet Thomas at his Marathon store. Occasionally, he’d take his sons, James and Jaiden. Thomas says every time, without fail, Hussle and friends would walk him back to his car. Hussle’s message was simple, yet poignant. Be safe out here.

“That’s why I haven’t been there [since], because it’s just like I keep saying. It just doesn’t seem real for him to be taken in front of what he built,” Thomas said. “It would probably be hard for me to go back over that way because that was a real special person to me.”

Thomas hasn’t given much thought to how he’ll react not seeing his friend courtside in Los Angeles, Houston or even welcoming him to Washington this season. Hussle’s absence won’t change the way he plays, but similar to his sister’s death, he finds peace “staying on [my] marathon.” He knows that would be Hussle’s only wish for him. The marathon was the root of their conversations, their friendship and their brotherhood. Staying 10 toes down and never letting a hard time humble them doesn’t stop just because one isn’t physically here anymore. Until they meet again in the next lifetime, Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart and on his skin.

“[Nipsey was] probably the realest person I ever met. [He’s] somebody that I would want my kids to be like. Nothing about him was fake.”

Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

Nipsey Hussle’s Puma legacy lives on with new co-branded collection The capsule collection contains 19 pieces — and 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood ‘Nip’ Foundation

BOSTON — “I still keep his texts.”

Ian Forde, a merchandise manager for the global sportswear company Puma, can’t bring himself to delete his iPhone thread with the late Nipsey Hussle. Every now and then, he’ll pull it up, reread old messages and reminisce about their conversations from the months they spent working together on a co-branded capsule collection between Hussle’s store, The Marathon Clothing, and Puma, which the Los Angeles rapper and community leader joined as a brand ambassador in January 2018.

“It’s not a one-way situation. It’s … more authentic,” Hussle once said in an interview. “It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.”

Forde met Hussle for the first time later that year after being assigned to oversee the collection from a design standpoint. During their creative process, he came to know Hussle as a serial texter. Any time he found some inspiration, he’d hit Forde up. And whenever Forde needed some input, he reached out to Hussle, who always messaged back within minutes, often with the praying hands emoji, or the black-and-white checkered flag, which symbolized how Hussle cherished life as a marathon. His partnership with Puma had become part of that journey.

In March, Forde traveled to L.A. to show Hussle and his team the finalized pieces of the Puma x TMC apparel, footwear and accessories. Hussle signed off, marking the official completion of his first collection with a global brand. And before Forde went back to Boston, Hussle made sure to thank him.

“He looked at me and was like, ‘Listen … I really appreciate you helping to shepherd this through,’ ” Forde remembers. “It kind of felt different coming from him. That he was appreciative not in a way that you just say thank you, but in a real man-to-man way. For me, that was the ultimate validation about everything that we had done.”

That was the last time Forde spoke to his colleague and friend. Four days after he left L.A., Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom was shot and killed outside of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue in South Central L.A. He was 33 years old.

Five months after the tragedy, though, Hussle’s partnership with Puma continues. On Monday, TMC took to Instagram to announce a Sept. 5 release of the capsule collection Hussle worked tirelessly to perfect — and Puma saw his vision through.

View this post on Instagram

Our team is proud to announce that our first collaborative capsule with @puma drops on September 5th 2019. Nipsey spearheaded this project from concept to final product over the course of last year, flying to meetings, reviewing samples, bringing in material references he liked, and most importantly ensuring that it reflected his style authentically with no compromise. Each detail from logo placement, fit, colorways, and materials was thoughtfully done. His signature style and DNA can be found in each garment that’s part of this collection from the khaki suit to the tracksuit. This project is very special to our team and we’re handling it with the utmost care to ensure it’s delivered exactly as Nipsey envisioned it. It’s a privilege for us to honor his commitment and carry out this project for people to receive a personally curated collection by Nip Hussle Tha Great.

A post shared by The Marathon Clothing (@themarathonclothing) on Aug 19, 2019 at 5:07pm PDT

“I hoped that it would see the light of day and people would see all the work that went into it … all the attention to detail,” Forde said. “I wanted people to experience what I experienced working with him … We know him for a music angle, but do we know him from a style point of view? This collection speaks to different facets of who he was.”

The 19-piece collection — featuring two colorways of the iconic 1980s Puma California sneaker, a pair of woven khaki jacket and pants suits, a marathon-themed MCS tracksuit and more — was designed using the measurements of Hussle’s body. Every single element of the capsule was created to represent California, the Marathon and, most importantly, Nip Hussle tha Great.

“It’s so representative of what he wore and what he loved about Puma,” says Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “There’s a lot of that energy in it. It’s nice to be able to keep it clean, keep it simple, keep it focused on who he was and how he wanted to tell his story through our product.”

Puma also announced that 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood “Nip” Foundation.

“Nip wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” says Chief Johnson, Puma’s senior manager of entertainment and marketing who worked more closely with Hussle daily than anyone from the brand.

A few years ago, Johnson was one of the first people to envision a partnership between Puma and Hussle. Eventually, that idea stuck.


In 2014, when Johnson worked in marketing for California lifestyle company Young & Reckless, he executed his first brand deal with Hussle. Young & Reckless and TMC partnered with Pac Sun for a limited-edition “Crenshaw” collection. Johnson remembers the day of the pop-up shop release, when approximately 1,000 people lined up outside in the pouring rain to cop pieces from the collection, which sold out in a half-hour.

“That’s the moment I realized, ‘Damn. He’s a lot bigger than I thought … he commands attention and people love him.’ He had this infectious attitude and this charisma that he carried himself with. You wanted to be around it,” said Johnson.

In 2017, Johnson began working for Puma and maintained his relationship with Hussle.

“When I came over to Puma, Nip was one of the first people I texted,” Johnson says. “He was like, ‘Yo, you already know. I’m ready.’ I just knew that doing something with him would set us on a path that was gonna be something amazing.”

Hussle also got the co-sign from Emory Jones — a cultural consultant for Puma (who’s also teamed up with the brand for his own collection) and the right-hand man of the legendary rapper and businessman Jay-Z, the founder of Roc Nation who in June 2018 was named the creative director of Puma’s relaunched basketball division. Jay-Z had also been a huge supporter of Hussle for years after famously buying 100 copies of his $100 mixtape Crenshaw back in 2013.

“Emory Jones … actually approached me,” Petrick recalls, “and said, ‘There’s this guy, he’s doing these amazing things. He’s really fantastic as an artist, but it’s also more than just his art. It’s how he works with his community and how he’s really pushing forward with the right energy to make the world a better place.’ … Emory recommended that we talk to Nip and try and figure out if there was a way to work with him. We took our time about it, did it the right way, established a relationship and eventually it was time to have him become a part of the family.”

After about a year of conversations, Hussle made it official — signing his Puma deal live on air during an L.A. radio appearance on Power 106’s The Cruz Show, nearly a month before the release of his Grammy-nominated, and now-classic, debut studio album, Victory Lap. And from the early days of the partnership, Hussle showed undying support to the brand, most notably through his daily wardrobe. Pairing Puma’s iconic T7 tracksuits, which first debuted in 1968, with Clydes and Suede sneakers became a part of Hussle’s go-to swag.

“Honestly, they should rename the T7 tracksuit the ‘Nipsey tracksuit.’ He’s the only person that literally makes a tracksuit look like a tuxedo,” says Johnson, who estimated that Hussle owned at least a dozen white Puma tracksuits alone. “Anytime stuff came in, it was like, ‘That’s Nip’s corner in the office. Fill those boxes up. Send them.’ To the point where … little things I remember like he once said, ‘Keep that box at the office, because I ain’t got no more room.’

“We just made sure he was always dripped out, and didn’t have any void in product. Every time he wore it, man, it felt like something brand-new.”

By late summer 2018, Hussle appeared as the face of his first Puma campaign for the brand’s relaunch of the California sneaker. On Sept. 10, 2018 — Forde knows the exact date from the text message thread that remains in his phone — Hussle and the TMC team arrived at Puma’s Boston headquarters to discuss collaborating for his own co-branded collection. Jones told Hussle to find Forde once he got there. That’s the day their relationship, and the design process of the collection, began.

“He was superattentive. He paid attention to the details … the larger picture. He treated everything like an album or a project, and every item in the collection is almost like a track, right?” Forde said. “There’s the intro, there’s the outro, there’s the party song, there’s the more introspective, reflective song. Everything had a cadence and a rhyme or reason.”

During that first meeting, Hussle played one of his old music videos from the early 2000s. In it, he wore some cutoff khaki shorts with an oversize white tee, and on his feet was a pair of Pumas. That’s really how long Hussle had been rocking with the brand. The throwback outfit inspired the two woven khaki suits created for the collection. And that moment represented how hands-on Hussle proved to be over the next several months.

“At one point with this collection, we’d reached a creative roadblock. I think we were speaking to ourselves and we weren’t really communicating in the right manner,” Forde remembers. “He called me one day and was like, ‘There’s some things I want to work through as a team.’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna bring the team to Boston.’ …

“Three days later, he came. He stayed here for two days. We worked from 9 to 5. We worked through lunch. Through that, we took him to the material library. He touched fabric. We looked at different executions. We looked at what he was doing, what the brand was doing moving forward, and how he could best encapsulate all those best ideas.”

While Puma worked on the collection, Hussle leveraged his partnership to give back to his community and kids in need, surrounding the brand’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. He came up with the idea of collaborating with Puma to refurbish and repaint the basketball courts at L.A.’s 59th Street Elementary School, located right around the corner from his grandmother’s house. (59th and 5th Ave, granny house with vanilla wafers, he raps on his Victory Lap track “Dedication.”) Hussle also donated $10,000 to the school on behalf of the brand and TMC.

Last fall when Puma debuted the Clyde Court — the first basketball shoe — Hussle and fellow Californian MC G-Eazy boarded the brand’s private jet and ventured to Las Vegas, where they pulled up to the Puma store and bought every single pair of the sneaker, which they gave to local high school players.

(That wouldn’t be the last time he used the jet. For the music video of his track “Racks in the Middle” — in which he famously spits the line, See my granny on a jet, some s— I’ll never forget / Next day flew to Vegas with my Puma connect — Hussle hit up Johnson about using the plane, which happened to be in L.A., not New York, where it’s typically kept. Johnson made some phone calls, passing the request up Puma’s chain of command, and within a few hours, got him an answer. To this day, Forde cherishes the music video because in it, Hussle is wearing a prototype of the MCS tracksuit they designed for the first Puma x TMC collection.)

In March, Hussle returned to Power 106, and in what ultimately became one of the final recorded interviews of his life, he announced his new deal with Puma for 2019 that would include multiple future co-branded collections, the first of which was set to drop in September.

On March 31, Hussle was killed — the day before his previously scheduled meeting with L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, Jay-Z and members of Roc Nation on combating gang violence in his hometown. The following week, he’d planned on traveling with Johnson to Puma’s global headquarters in Germany to be a part of a brandwide summit for the first time.

“We were gonna be in front of the entire Puma team and talk about this collection, talk about what the future could hold,” Petrick says. “There were so many positive ideas about what we could do down the road. He was so enthusiastic about the brand, and I think that the sky was the limit. To have that happen in that moment was just crushing.”

Johnson still made the trip to Europe to clear his head and represent the man he called his brother. He left early to return to L.A. for Hussle’s funeral on April 11, held at Staples Center before one final victory lap around South Los Angeles with a procession spanning 25 miles. In the ensuing months of Hussle’s death, Petrick confirmed the posthumous continuation of his partnership with Puma while speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. Billboards and posters teasing his collection soon went up across L.A., featuring “TMC” in white letters and an image of Hussle, head down above praying hands, from his final Puma photo shoot. Johnson remembers that day vividly, with one moment standing out to him. After the shoot wrapped, true to Hussle’s appreciative character, he went around the room and gave everyone on set a hug.

“To this day, it still doesn’t seem real that he’s gone,” Johnson says. Now, it’s only right that he and Puma celebrate Hussle’s legacy with his long-awaited collection. In less than two years as partners, Puma and Nipsey Hussle have become synonymous.

“It’s bittersweet, because you wish he was here to enjoy this moment with the TMC family and Puma,” Johnson says. “But I do believe he’s somewhere smiling down, like ‘Yeah. Y’all did it.’ ”

Courtesy of Puma

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Joining forces with Jay-Z is just what the NFL needed The musical legend gives credibility to a league struggling with its image among African Americans

NEW YORK — The pairing of the NFL and rapper-businessman-activist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is surprising, but it actually makes tremendous sense for the buttoned-down league.

As part of a long-term agreement that will be announced during a news conference on Wednesday, Carter’s Roc Nation entertainment company will lead the NFL’s music and entertainment endeavors, including advising on the selection of artists for the Super Bowl halftime show, a production that has presented challenges for the league.

The NFL, which will greatly expand its entertainment footprint because of the deal, is still the same organization that has for years shut out onetime San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested during the 2016 season to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. And Carter has been a vocal supporter of Kaepernick, who in February settled his collusion grievance against the league for an undisclosed amount.

Despite taking a public stance about Kaepernick that is at odds with the NFL’s position, Carter clearly views the alliance as an opportunity to potentially improve the league’s culture from within. Think of it as sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. As for the NFL, well, joining forces with Carter is a gift that’s heaven-sent, says Harry Edwards.

In fact, Edwards, the legendary sports activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has only one question about the new partnership: What took NFL commissioner Roger Goodell so long?

“I don’t know why Roger didn’t make this move long before now,” Edwards said on the phone. “I’m surprised that it took Roger so long to say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep going through this every Super Bowl.’ He had to put an end to it.”

In Everything Is Love, Jay-Z’s surprise 2018 album with his superstar wife, Beyoncé, he rapped about declining to participate in the Super Bowl. On the track “APES—,” he says:


“I said no to the Super Bowl

You need me, I don’t need you

Every night we in the end zone

Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”

In the run-up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in February, many A-list entertainers declined to participate in the halftime show and boycotted the game altogether, largely because of the league’s perceived mistreatment of Kaepernick. Additionally, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition requesting that Maroon 5, the show’s eventual headliner, drop out of the performance.

Despite recent efforts to back players in championing social justice, the NFL still lacks credibility with many African Americans, even some who identify as being among the league’s fans. Credibility with black folk is not something Jay-Z lacks, Edwards said.

“To get someone with the awareness and the credibility, as well as the street cred — because let’s not forget that in this situation, that’s important, too — that Jay-Z has is exactly what Roger needs,” said Edwards, a longtime 49ers adviser who has been active at the intersections of race, sports and politics since the 1960s. “Jay-Z provides the cover the NFL needs for [some] entertainers to give it [the NFL] a chance again.

“It’s crystal clear that if Roger had not made this move, every event that the NFL tried to put on would be complicated by the political implications of entertainers not wanting to be part of a system that supports the likes of [Miami Dolphins owner Stephen] Ross and [Jerry] Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and others. Now the challenge for Jay-Z, what he has to ask himself, is, ‘How do I frame that entertainment module so that it reflects, even in an evolving fashion, the right side of history?’ ”

Not surprisingly, many Kaepernick supporters are angered by Jay-Z’s decision to embrace the NFL. On social media on Tuesday, Jay-Z was attacked, predictably, for being a sellout, including by Carolina Panthers defensive back Eric Reid, who had joined Kaepernick in his grievance against the NFL.

Regardless of whether the union of professional sports’ most powerful league and the entertainment impresario improves the NFL’s social justice efforts, some critics won’t forgive Jay-Z for apparently being insufficiently supportive of Kaepernick.

Jay-Z, however, can’t worry about that, Edwards said. He just has to do good work.

“The Super Bowl is Jay-Z’s program to script,” Edwards said. “And if Jay-Z is half as sharp as I believe him to be, he will figure a way to take the burden off of the league so that every year the NFL is not confronted with another question about whether anyone worthy of the halftime musical production of the Super Bowl will even want to participate.

“He’ll also figure out a way, artistically, to project the right message to we the people, because you can do a whole lot through art. Through art, you can express things that you can’t say with a bullhorn, but you can get the message through just as clearly. Jay-Z clearly has the intellectual capacity and the artistic chops to get that done.”

He has proved that by surprising us time and time again with other big moves. And for his latest project, Jay-Z will try to quarterback the NFL to a comeback.

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.