A little over a week ago, Roc Nation, an entertainment company founded by rapper Jay-Z, entered into a multi-year partnership with the National Football League (NFL). In sum, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation will attempt to enhance the NFL’s in game experience, while also strengthening the league’s social justice efforts.

(Photo: Ben Hider, AP Images for NFL)

Yet, as many of you know, there’s been considerable backlash in the days subsequent to the announcement. People question Jay-Z’s motive to enter into a partnership with a beleaguered league that has not been so keen to take up the causes Jay-Z is passionate about (e.g., racial justice, criminal justice reform). Many feel as if the NFL is attempting to “save face” by collaborating with Jay, a heralded hip hop artist, adored by many in the Black community.

I have to admit, I was surprised upon seeing the headline. After all, isn’t Jay-Z the same person who advised Houston rapper, Travis Scott, not to perform at the 2019 Super Bowl? Jay recently stated the reasoning behind his suggestion was that he felt Travis should not play second fiddle, given his recent success.

In recent days, I’ve been asked my thoughts on the matter, in view of my past research and writing on the subject. In sum, I do not think we should be surprised by Jay-Z’s actions or the NFL. After all, Jay-Z is a capitalist and a well-informed business mind! And let us not forget his verse on Kanye’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone remix”: “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man. Let me handle my business, damn!” In my humble opinion, this partnership is merely him handling his business. Handle it, Jay! Just don’t expect everyone to be behind you, despite your multiple efforts to defend your actions. Meanwhile, the NFL, too, has savvy strategists on their books, looking to maximize profits and minimize losses. My guess is that the NFL figures Black people love Jay-Z, and he represents a way to win some of them back. So, at the end of the day, it’s a win-win for both parties.

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss these topics and more with various sports execs. We’ve seen throughout history that sports represents a great vehicle to bring attention to societal injustices and make change. Sure, sports, nowadays are highly commercialized; however, entertainment and doing “justice work” are arguably not mutually exclusive notions; so, the idea that future partnerships could benefit society is plausible.

However, there’s a way to go about doing it. Building on existing change leadership research, including studies of my own and work with change leaders in the sports world, I offer six observational takeaways for people and organizations considering taking up a cause (i.e., aspiring change leaders).

Believe in the social cause you’re bringing attention to.

I think one of the reasons the NFL is facing so much criticism is because people do not think they are sincere in their actions. For years, they’ve been dealing with player protests and even tried to quash these protests by creating a national anthem policy. This policy faced fierce backlash and was put on hold. They later agreed on a $90 million donation dedicated to social justice causes (this also faced backlash). However, money isn’t enough when working for justice. The NFL has some was some ways to go to gain the trust back of many of its Black consumers. It’s like Jay versed in Takeover, “We don’t believe you…”

Have a good understanding of the area which you seek social change.

At the end of the day, change leaders cannot force people to believe in the same social causes they do. This is why people working for social change should focus on the things they can control. One of these is to becoming an expert in the area in which you intend to disrupt and/or partnering with people and organizations that are experts. Occasionally groups resisting may lack essential information and not understand the social cause. In other cases, those opposing the social change frequently attempt to obscure a change leader’s message. Based on reading and observations of social change efforts, sometimes this is easier to do because change leaders do not fully understand what they’re doing. As a result, they are unable to generate empathy from the broader public because their message is unclear. For instance, Colin Kaepernick said that he had considered bringing attention to racial injustice for a while, but before he did, he wanted to make sure he was well read on the subject matter.[1] Though he has faced criticism for his actions and his beliefs, it is clear he is strong in his convictions and is able to back them up given his understanding of the issues.

(Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Not all causes are viewed and received the same.

In 2016, I had the opportunity to speak with renowned sports journalist, Dave Zirin, about the current wave of athlete protests. He voiced an observation that is noteworthy for anyone working for social change, particularly issues that could be deemed more contentious. Comparing the likes of LeBron James to Colin Kaepernick, Zirin noted how there is a fundamental difference between calling for an end to gun violence, such as James did at the ESPY Awards, and calling for systemic change to social institutions that have historically wronged racial and ethnic minorities, as was the case with Kaepernick. He contended that the former is much more likely to gain consensus (or at least close to it) from the public than the latter, which is much more divisive. Regarding the latter, opposition may even dispute the social issue even exists. The biggest challenge here is to articulate how and why the change you are calling for will benefit those who are not yet onboard. Human nature is to operate from a “what’s in it for me?” perspective. If change leaders desire commitment from others, they should consider what these groups want and need. The NFL has yet to do this as of yet, and should communicate to their more conservative-leaning fan base why racial justice is important.

Anticipate resistance.

Related to the point above, I think one of the more obvious takeaways and one that we can all probably see is that change leaders should always anticipate resistance. Resistance occurs for many reasons, one of which is because dominant groups benefit from societal norms; as a result, they are more prone to uphold the status quo and not champion change. Contrast that to less dominant, peripheral actors who are often less privileged members of society and are less favored by the status quo; consequently, they are more likely to desire change to improve their way of life. We saw this in 1968 during Smith and Carlos’ demonstration, and we see similar scenes today when considering cases like Colin Kaepernick’s silent gestures beginning in 2016. There has been backlash both for his tactics (e.g., kneeling during the national anthem) and the causes he’s bringing attention to (e.g., police brutality against Black people). But, my guess is that while he is despised by many now, decades later, society will view him in the same light as John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The NFL should take note of this and act accordingly.

Embrace the challenge.

Sure, people resisting a social cause you believe strongly in can be a frustrating and oftentimes agonizing experience. However, as cliché as it may be, it is important for change leaders to not withdraw from the resistance; instead, they should embrace it. One piece of advice I received from a change leader within sport when experiencing resistance was to think of it as strength training. We use resistance (e.g., dumbbells) to build muscle and endurance so that we can gain strength. The same could be said for the opposition change leaders face when attempting to bring attention to a social cause. So, keenly listen. Attempt to understand why they are resisting. Seek new information to address frequently stated objections. This seems to be a lost art in today’s divided political climate. Of course, this does not mean you have to concur with every single criticism; but listening to opposition criticisms can open your eyes to blind spots you may have not considered and serve to ultimately strengthen your cause when you respond to these blind spots.

Social position matters.[2]

A person or organization’s social position is based on various social groups they belong to (e.g., industry, profession, gender, race, culture, relationships) and provides them consent to perform certain actions and enter certain spaces. One of the more interesting observations from a study I and colleagues conducted is that Smith and Carlos’ protest may have been viewed differently if they had the support of their teammates and people in positions of power. Based on this observation, it would behoove change leaders to seek ties with people who have access to resources and “clout” to make change. This is why I advocate the NFL to partner other social justice organizations. Individual athletes have done a better job at this, establishing relationships with people in Congress and meeting with them about issues related to race and policing, among others. In sum, this provides your change effort more legitimacy.

Final remarks

When we consider what is necessary for social change to take place, it regularly demands some type of disruptive act. Change leaders can play an integral role in this process. The challenge is this is often complex and will more than likely entail resistance to both the change and the tactics a change leader will use. Yet, I’m reminded of what John Carlos recently told me when I had the chance to meet him last year: If anyone ever calls you a troublemaker, rest assured you’re in damn good company. Don’t let them [the opposition] intimidate you and scare you away from doing what you feel is right.”


[1] Steve Wyche, “Colin Kaepernick Explains Why He Sat During National Anthem.” NFL News, last modified August 27, 2016. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem

[2] Julie Battilana, “The Enabling Role of Social Position in Diverging from the Institutional Status Quo: Evidence from the UK National Health Service,” Organization Science 22, no. 4, (2011).