UPDATED: On Friday night, three days after news broke that Jay-Z’s company Roc Nation had struck a controversial entertainment-and-social-justice deal with the NFL, a report suddenly emerged that he is in talks to acquire a “significant” stake in an unspecified league team. Jay’s rep declined to comment on the report, the non-denial gave the rumor legs, and the drama that began with the announcement that Jay was now in bed with an organization he had previously harshly criticized — for its treatment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has essentially been drummed out of the professional football for kneeling during the National Anthem as a statement of protest, among other issues — spun even higher into overdrive.
Yet some observers question whether the ownership bid is real, or whether instead it’s a counter-narrative planted to stem the wave of criticism Jay has received over the Roc Nation-NFL deal.
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On one hand, reports of an ownership bid could make the deal, which will see Roc Nation assisting the NFL with entertainment programming for the Super Bowl halftime show and throughout the year as well as unspecified social-justice efforts, seem like the first step in a much bigger play to effect change in the — okay, we’ll say it — sometimes racist-seeming world of professional football ownership. On the other, it seemed like it could be a red herring, a Trump-like tactic to distract from the wave of negative reaction the deal has received from those who feel it is a hypocritical money play, whitewashing the NFL in exchange for a big check and the opportunity to provide a platform for favored artists on a big national stage.
“It’s a total PR stunt,” one insider says. “Notice that the [ownership] rumor didn’t come out until he started getting all that bad press? The thinking may be that if the deal was part of an ownership play, Jay would look like an even bigger dealmaker by buying a team and stretching the narrative of him changing the NFL from the inside.”
Asked how doubling down on a heavily criticized partnership could be an effective strategy, the insider shot back, “I didn’t say it was a good plan!”
However, Jeremy Evans, founder and managing attorney of California Sports Lawyers, opines that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “brokering the Roc Nation deal is a sign of things to come,” he says. “The league is looking to become more inclusive, but [Jay-Z] will have to convince owners, a team must be available, and he might need a partner to help raise the money. But it’s not impossible.”
Although none of the three prominent sports attorneys and several anonymous sources Variety spoke with for this article could say with certainty that they’d heard of teams that were on the block, or had inside information about Jay making an ownership bid (indeed, after this article published CBS cited unnamed NFL sources as saying no such deal is on the table), all had very strong opinions about the questions raised by such a move — an NFL franchise is the most lucrative entity in sports, according to Forbes — and what his burgeoning relationship with the league means.
“Public opinion is divided: He’s half sellout and half savior,” says sports and entertainment attorney Alan K. Fertel, who has represented players and agents and consulted for the NFL. “But if anyone can turn the white country club of the NFL around, it’s him.”
Several complicated questions are in play: Can he own a team and his Roc Nation Sports agency at the same time, as a source close to him claimed to TMZ? Could he even afford to buy “significant” ownership of a team, even though he’s a newly minted billionaire? And finally, would the other team owners accept him, let alone allow him to make substantive change — such as overseeing a deal to bring back Kaepernick, with whom he apparently has a strained relationship at present — in the troubled league?
The three attorneys agreed that he could in theory have ownership in a team and an agency, but it’s extremely unlikely.
“There is a section of the NFL Players’ Association rules that prohibits an individual from [having ownership in a team and an agency], but the league can make its own judgement and deviate, if a majority of owners and the commissioner feel that the opportunity for conflict is limited,” says veteran sports attorney Andrew Miltenberg. “But even setting aside the legalities of it, the optics would be absolutely terrible. It would discredit his role as an owner and as an agent.”
While a source reportedly close to Jay told TMZ that the he “is not an NFL agent and does not take part in the operations of the NFL players in Roc Nation” — a statement that was partially walked back by another unnamed Jay source talking to Page 6 — all three were skeptical about how such an arrangement might work in practice.
“There’s supposed to be what’s called a ‘Chinese wall’ — a barrier to prevent conflict,” Miltenberg says. “And it’s possible he could be isolated from any aspect of negotiations or playing an agent’s role. But that’s very hard to monitor, and it’s unclear whether the owners or the NFL would allow it. It’s possible he could be a minority owner or a non-controlling owner, but I think that’s not good enough,” he continues. “At the end of the day, the agent has a fiduciary obligation to the player, and the owner has a responsibility to the [team and the league]— there are too many possibilities to give the appearance of impropriety.”
Evans agrees. “There’s no way they would allow it,” he says. “[Jay’s ownership of Roc Nation] would have to be sold or put into a trust. He’d have to distance himself from it and convince the other 31 owners that he would be a good owner. But I don’t see it happening.”
Fertel thirds that notion. “It would be impossible to ‘Chinese wall’ him from all the agents’ activities,” he says. “It just won’t work.”
But assuming Jay moves ahead with an ownership bid — an NFL franchise is worth an average of $2.57 billion according to Forbes, which valued the entirety of Roc Nation at $150 million — can he afford it? Jay is a newly minted billionaire, but to put that number in context, Forbes placed New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft’s net worth at $6.6 billion, while Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross — who is currently under fire for hosting a fund-raiser for President Trump — is worth $7.7 billion.
That detail alone could have been a major factor in walking back the ownership rumors.
“He can’t be a majority owner, although he has enough money to make a significant minority investment,” says Fertel, who opined that New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta seem the most likely franchises for Jay to become involved with (Miami, which some reports claimed was the team being eyed, is “possible,” he says, “but I don’t see the bang for the buck that he’s looking for”).
“The Roc Nation deal is a first step,” he continues. “They might not welcome him as a majority owner now, but ‘Be a good soldier and we’ll help you get a team’ is something they can hold out for later,” he adds, emphasizing “That’s my opinion, I don’t know this for a fact.”
Indeed, an open question remains what kind of welcome the owners would give Jay — who is not just an admitted former drug dealer, as right-wing mouthpiece Tomi Lahren noted in a Tweet criticizing the NFL for the partnership (her voice may be more significant in the world of professional football than society as a whole), but also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge after stabbing record producer Lance Rivera in 1999.
All three attorneys felt that Jay’s past was less of an issue. “I don’t know of a specific rule regarding [convictions] and ownership,” says Miltenberg, noting sexual harassment allegations against Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Baltimore Colts owner Jim Irsay’s arrest on DUI and possession charges (while those charges are perhaps not on the level of a stabbing, they are also not 20 years in the past). “There’s a conduct committee of nine owners and they and the NFL could determine disciplinary action — a fine, a suspension, community service, all three. But I can’t imagine that they would bar him based on a prior conviction.”
A larger question is how much they would embrace and cooperate with Jay in the areas he’s said he intends to operate: effecting change within the management of professional football.
“These owners are really smart, multibillionaire guys who have made some really stupid decisions over the past three years, and probably half of them are Trump supporters,” says Fertel. “Attendance is down, and I think they know they have to make it better.
“They might not embrace him at first,” he continues. “But as a result of [the Roc Nation] deal and work he might do to help resolve the Kaepernick crisis, he comes in with credibility and clout — maybe not with the average NFL fan in Kansas, but definitely in Brooklyn and L.A. And even if these crusty old white guys who are the owners don’t really know who he is, they go to their grandchildren and say, ‘What do you think of this guy Jay-Z?,’ and they’re going to give him the highest possible rating.
“The owners know they’re not doing well — the shield is tarnished,” he concludes, “and nobody else — nobody — could help them get out of this mess like he can.”
As for how much of all this is real, who knows? The only rule in this particular contact sport is: Everything’s negotiable until it isn’t.