Last week, Colin Kaepernick wrote on Twitter: “5 am. 5 days a week. For 3 years. Still Ready.” A 59-second video linked to the post showed Kaepernick working in a gym, lifting weights and doing push-ups. When the video ends, “Denied work for 889 days” appeared on the screen.
The video, which had been viewed more than 3.2 million times as of Wednesday evening, was a reminder that one of the N.F.L.’s biggest headaches had not gone away.
The issue resurfaced on Wednesday, when N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared at a news conference with Jay-Z, the music impresario and one of Kaepernick’s most public supporters in his struggle to return to the league. The quarterback, who helped the San Francisco 49ers reach the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, has been out of the N.F.L. since the 2016 season, when he began kneeling through the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color.
Jay-Z and Goodell came together to announce a deal that will make Jay-Z a co-producer of the Super Bowl halftime show. He will also help promote the league’s social justice initiatives.
If the commissioner thought that teaming up with Jay-Z would end a perception that Kaepernick had been blackballed by the league, he was mistaken. During the news conference at Jay-Z’s office in Manhattan, Kaepernick’s name was invoked over and over in one way or another.
The first question to Jay-Z was why he had partnered with the league even though Kaepernick, 31, has been unable to land a job in the N.F.L. despite repeatedly expressing his commitment to football.
“We forget that Colin’s whole thing was to bring attention to social injustice,” Jay-Z said. “In that case, this is a success. This is the next thing, because there are two parts to the protest — you go out and protest, and the company and individual says, ‘I hear you. What do we do next?’”
Jay-Z added that he and others could follow up Kaepernick’s protest by helping millions of people. “Or,” he said, “we can get stuck on Colin not having a job.”
At the news conference, the questions didn’t let up.
One reporter compared the league’s partnership with Jay-Z, one of the most influential African-Americans in the world, to “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound when it seems like Colin is getting blackballed by the N.F.L.”
Jay-Z said he had spoken to Kaepernick but declined to provide details about their conversation.
Without addressing Kaepernick’s status or mentioning his name, Goodell said that player protests spurred by Kaepernick had raised awareness of social injustice and that the focus should be on work the players are doing to solve problems.
“That’s where they want the attention,” he said.
Goodell did not answer questions about whether players would be penalized if they protested during the anthem this season. A measure to force players to stand through the anthem has never been enforced, in part because of a grievance filed by the players union. But Jay-Z answered a hypothetical question about whether he would kneel during the anthem if he were an athlete.
“I think we have moved past kneeling,” he said. “I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”
And so it went, on and on.
Kaepernick’s absence on the field has created a wedge between the league and African-American fans, as well as with many members of the music industry. That wedge was so deep that the N.F.L. had trouble booking an act for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show in Atlanta.
Jay-Z turned down an offer to play, and other musicians said that, because of the league’s treatment of Kaepernick, they would not perform if asked.
Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, recognized that the N.F.L.’s difficulty finding a top band to play at the Super Bowl reflected a deeper problem — the alienation many African-American football fans felt because of Kaepernick’s plight. So Kraft helped bring Jay-Z and Goodell together, and he attended their first meeting about a possible partnership in Los Angeles in January.
In February, shortly after the Super Bowl, the N.F.L. paid several million dollars to settle a grievance that Kaepernick had filed accusing the league’s 32 teams of colluding to keep him off the field.
Though he hasn’t played since 2016, Kaepernick is the third-most recognizable football player in the United States among those measured by the Q Scores Company. (Tom Brady and Eli Manning were ahead of him.)
He is viewed favorably by four times as many African-Americans as he is by other fans, according to the Q Company, while his negative Q score, which measures how many people rated Kaepernick “fair” or “poor,” is five times higher among people who are not African-American.
“There’s definitely a difference in perception,” said Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of the Q Score Company. “Blacks are much more engaged with him.”
African-American players, who make up the majority of N.F.L. rosters, are also much more engaged with Kaepernick’s fight to return to the league.
Saquon Barkley, the star running back for the New York Giants, retweeted Kaepernick’s workout video, then told The Daily News on Monday that he continued to support the former quarterback.
“If a fan wants to not be a fan of me because I retweet a thing for Colin Kaepernick, I don’t care,” Barkley said. “But I respect that people have their own opinions. Everyone is entitled to that. I just would hope that people respect I have a right to my own opinion as well.”
In the end, the deal announced Wednesday may lead to a more entertaining Super Bowl. It may also raise a lot more money for groups fighting social injustice that the league is backing through its “Inspire Change” campaign.
But even with all its resources, the league is probably going to have a hard time shaking the Kaepernick questions.
A few hours after Goodell and Jay-Z posed for pictures at the end of their news conference, Kaepernick re-emerged on Twitter, writing:
“Today marks the three year anniversary of the first time I protested systemic oppression,” he said. He then added a veiled jab at league’s new alliance. “I continue to work and stand with the people in our fight for liberation, despite those who are trying to erase the movement!”