Sports writers have long lamented the lack of seminal sports figures in today’s game. Folks say athletes willing to take a stand like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are conspicuously missing in this generation. Columnist Jason Whitlock wrote yesterday that “Integration, Incarceration, Assassination and 30 pieces of silver ensured there will never be another Jackie Robinson,” but maybe we’re all just looking in the wrong place.
It seems crazy, but the man who could change the face of sports may not be an athlete at all. In fact, it may not just be sports. What Jay-Z is doing could change the world as we know it.
The Jigga man, already known as not a businessman, but a business, man, is preparing to offload his shares of the Brooklyn Nets in order to become an NBA agent. He’s got a few hurdles to jump still, but according to Yahoo! Sports expert Adrian Wojnarowski “none are significant and Jay-Z’s certification as a player agent is a mere formality.”
But the bigger picture is what the long-term future holds for the man born Shawn Carter. While he was unable to penetrate the old (white) boys club of NBA ownership with any real impact, he’s realized what many fans and sportswriters realized a long time ago: the players control the leagues.
The NBA, NFL and MLB are all about players and have been since Magic and Bird changed the game in the ‘80s. If you control the players, their contracts, their appearance and their marketing, you control the league. It’s an immeasurably more powerful position to be in than even owning 100 percent of one team.
Jay-Z could be creating an entirely new entity where rappers, actors and athletes all come together to better control their image and branding and where the money pools together to fund resources that help ingratiate and mentor the next generation of superstars. The endeavor could also have the effect of making it easier for athletes and entertainers to speak their minds and stand up for causes they in which they believe.
In recent years, the owners, agents and management behind the big pro sports leagues have been able to exert pressure on their star players. Quite simply, one player against a machine can’t win. But what if they players had their own machine?
If the 10-20 top players from Major League Baseball joined the 10-20 top players from the National Football League along with the 10-20 top players from the National Basketball Association and a few superstars from the world of entertainment were with them, they would wield significantly more power and influence than just about any person or entity in sports or entertainment.
David Stern might be tempted to fine or suspend someone like Dwyane Wade for speaking critically about an issue, but he’ll be much less likely to do that if he knows that fine or suspension will ensure blowback from Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and Adrian Peterson. Similarly, Nike might not be as quick to drop or censor an athlete like LeBron James if it knows that they will lose or hurt relationships with multiple players in multiple sports because of it.
There is strength in numbers and having a united front that stretches across multiple sports allows for a freedom and control that athletes haven’t had since the infusion of massive corporations and advertising dollars took over the league.
Those signed to Jay-Z’s collective could reassert dominance over everything from the advertising dollars that come in to their respective leagues’ image and direction.
Jackie Robinson wasn’t a legend because he gave speeches about the evils of segregation and exclusion. Robinson is a legend because he opened up the doors and showed everyone what African-American baseball players could do if given the opportunity. He took his stand by stepping onto the field and serving as an example, not just for what a baseball player could be, but for what a man could be if given the chance.
Jay-Z is doing the same thing. He’s opening up doors and creating opportunities for the next wave of players who have something to say to have a platform to say it on without fear and without hesitation. He’s not doing it by taking to the pulpit, but by using his business acumen to allow others the opportunity to shine.
It all makes sense if you follow the blueprint.
As president of Def Jam, he didn’t usher in a new era of dominance for the label, but he did dole out massive and seemingly profligate contracts to loyal associates of his from previous years. Friends like Foxy Brown and Nas got millions and so did acts like 112, Mariah Carey and his long-time hype man Memphis Bleek.
As for his deal with the Nets, reports suggest that his initial investment of $1 million will only be worth $800,000 when he divests, but he’s expected to retain his stake in the newly constructed Barclays Center, which just happens to have a 40/40 Club and Roc-a-wear store and will sell Jay’s Armond de Brignac champagne inside. As he raps in his new track “Open Letter,” “I still own the building, I’m still keeping my seat.”
Jay-Z is in the business of business, but he’s also in the business of granting opportunities and setting an example. He’s knocking doors down for the next generation of talented kids, whether they want to be in business, music, sports or management.
This may all just be wishful thinking on my part. Maybe athletes won’t sign with Jay-Z en masse and realize the opportunity to speak out and make their voices heard on social causes and civil rights. Maybe they won’t take the chance to usher in a new era of player control in sports where individuals rather than organizations call the shots and the players associations rather than the owners run the show. Maybe no one will realize the possibilities that are before them. But then again, maybe they will.
Dion Rabouin is the digital editor of The Atlanta Daily World. Follow him on Twitter @DionRabouin.