Eric Reid, 26, plays safety for the Carolina Panthers. He spent the first five years of his career with the San Francisco 49ers — who drafted him in the 1st round in 2013 — where he developed a reputation as one of the best players at his position in the NFL. In his high school class he was rated as the 90th overall prospect in the country, and the 6th-best at his position. Within football circles Eric Reid has been a big name at every level he’s played, which he earned by being a standout in the defensive secondary.
Knowing all this, you might wonder why it took until September 27th — four weeks after the NFL season started — before a team finally signed him. I mean, Armchair GM’s like me don’t get to run NFL teams. But I think if I was going to, I would want the best players. Guys that could help me win. The fact that Reid was only 26, in the prime of his football life, would have made him an upgrade to at least half the teams in the NFL. But that isn’t what happened.
Alongside former teammate Colin Kaepernick, Reid was on the front lines of the protest against police brutality (something that he has continued with the Carolina Panthers). Since I can’t think of a good reason to justify why Eric wasn’t signed sooner, given his talent and career arc, I can only suspect that his outspokenness about unarmed black kids getting gunned down by police was the reason. Given the immensely conservative fraternity of billionaire NFL owners, who don’t want to deal with the headache of a human rights activist in their locker room, it stands to reason that Reid was simply crossed out. Removed from consideration.
If that sounds conspiratorial, so be it. If you happen to fall on the other side of this fence, then it’s you who has to justify how a legitimate star at his position, hitting free agency in the prime of his career, could go an entire offseason garnering so little interest. There’s that, and there is also the fact that Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed while teams like the Bills are trudging along with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson.
Eric Reid is only part of this story, though. The other party is another NFL safety, a guy named Malcolm Jenkins, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. A couple weeks ago Jenkins’s Eagles played Reid’s Panthers, and seemingly out of nowhere before the game — after the coin flip — Reid stormed onto the field from the Carolina sideline and had words for the Eagles’ safety:
In case you aren’t familiar with how an NFL games work, this scene is not customary. Before the game the head referee flips a coin, and the team captains line up with respect to which side of the field they will be defending. Then everyone shakes hands, and the two teams get the show on the road. Here, Reid clearly has a bone to pick with Jenkins, who was just doing what one of the team captains normally does.
After the game, Reid gave some context. In an interview in front of his locker, Reid labeled Jenkins a “sellout,” and more deliciously a “neo-colonialist,” for his cooperation with the NFL when the Players Coalition struck a deal to implement a National Anthem policy. Jenkins responded by saying he won’t talk bad about someone who is “genuinely out to help other people.”
Without more backstory, Eric Reid comes across as unhinged. By provoking Jenkins on the field and doubling down in the locker room, it’s Reid who acts like the immature younger brother with something to prove. Malcom Jenkins, meanwhile, can all the while just sit back, and explain to the media that ‘he provoked me,’ and ‘I’m going to be a bigger man and not talk bad about him.’ Reid was ostensibly giving away all the leverage.
But then on Sunday, after Carolina’s unrelated 37-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Eric Reid was again at his locker. And this time he gave the in-depth backstory, which lasts about seven minutes. I would recommend listening to the whole thing, but below the great Tom Ley of Deadspin highlights the main juice of the matter:
Reid said that the coalition went into the meeting with no intention of negotiating an end to the protests, and were only there to encourage the owners to make meaningful donations to social justice causes. Reid recalled a number of owners in the meeting saying that the protests needed to end, including Bills owner Terry Pegula saying, “We need to put a band-aid on this, and we need a black figurehead to do it.” Reid said that after the meeting the coalition huddled up and reaffirmed that they had no intention of negotiating an agreement to end the protests.
“That changed the last week of November , when Malcolm called me on the phone and asked if the NFL made a donation to the Players Coalition, would that be enough for me to stop protesting. He said they were willing to do $5 million,” said Reid. “I told him no, we’ve already established two times prior to this that we weren’t negotiating an end to the protest. He then asked me, ‘Well how much would it take?’ I ended that conversation, I reported back to other players what he said to me, and at that point we removed ourselves from the Players Coalition.”
Only after understanding this do any of Reid’s actions make sense. He didn’t pick a fight just for the hell of it, and he didn’t call Jenkins a “sellout” and “neo-colonialist” just for some media attention. Eric Reid deliberately wanted to put a spotlight on Jenkins for — I don’t think there is a better way to describe it — selling out to the owners.
Despite playing the role of antagonist, Reid clearly shows himself as a man of principle. The owners wanted to “put a band-aid” on it, and to accomplish that they attempted to do what they always do, what generally always works for them: they wanted to throw money at the problem and wash their hands as quickly as possible. They also needed someone within the Players Coalition to play ball, so to speak, and who better than Malcolm Jenkins — a black guy who publicly supports Kaepernick’s plight — to be the face of this bargain.
There always seems to be a strong push, whether it’s sports or politics (though they oftentimes go hand-in-hand), for bipartisan agreement. If you are one of the 12 people who still watches the mainstream news, you have surely been exposed to this idea. That the Democrats and Republicans both feel certain ways, but ultimately the right answer — the thing that is best for both parties, and everyone — is a compromise somewhere in the middle.
This idea is obvious bullshit, not only because centrism is a proven failure in elections, but more so that the Republicans continue to move further to the right, meaning for the left to keep up, and meet “somewhere in the middle,” they inevitably have to move right themselves. The magical and virtuous bipartisan compromise is never really a compromise.
That’s effectively what the owners did to the Players Coalition. Before the two sides had a meeting, the idea of getting the players to quit kneeling during the National Anthem was an issue that wasn’t even on the table. It was outside the Overton Window of the NFL. So when Malcolm Jenkins phoned up Eric Reid, and asked if $5 million was enough for he and the rest of the players to abandon their protest, the former 49ers safety rightly told him to go fuck himself (in a manner of speaking).
In doing so Reid showed just how hollow the NFL owners are, doing what we all expected anyway by only feigning interest in helping injustice, and also proved just how empty and fake players like Malcolm Jenkins are. They say the right things when the topic gets brought up. They mention the appropriate foundations that are worthy of being donated to. But when push comes to shove, and the other side waves any amount of money in their face, they buckle.
The point here is that no amount of money would have been enough to get Eric Reid to stop protesting. This isn’t a matter of using a band-aid to cover a gaping wound, and it isn’t a situation where money is at all necessary. This is about an unfair — or, more accurately, racist — criminal justice system. The system where unarmed black dudes get shot, where police officers default to “I feared for my life,” where idiots start GoFund Me accounts to raise money for said officer (the true victim in all this), and nothing ever gets done.
It also quickly turned into a matter of free speech, where players like Kaepernick and Reid represent the people and the billionaire owners represent exactly what they are: the establishment. The struggle of the people against the rich and powerful elites is a story as old as America — which literally came to being by means of a revolution, and was built brilliantly from the ground up on the idea of free speech — but for some strange reason a large swath of the population has decided to be on the side that’s against free speech, and on the side of the establishment that couldn’t give any less of a fuck about any ordinary person.
So it’s important that Eric Reid made a spectacle, and put Malcolm Jenkins on blast. If he didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be talking about it, and no one would know that it’s actually Reid — the instigator — and not Jenkins — the guy with all the plausible deniability — who has integrity and is willing to fight with the common people.
Maybe I’m what all the Democrats hate and I’m too “pure.” Maybe it’s wrong of me to hold people to high standards, and actually give a shit when they do something I consider out of line. It can be a lonely, constantly narrowing road, but to me the alternative is either ignorance (which I’m not that into) or consciously lowering the bar for basic humanity (which itself has diminishing returns).
I’m with Eric Reid, because I’m with Colin Kaepernick. I’m for free speech across the board. I think if you have the NFL owners, Fox News, and the goddamn President of the United States all pushing the same narrative, I’m generally inclined to go the opposite way. Call me crazy. I am for the working class, I’m for organized labor, and so I am for the ordinary unarmed black kids being needlessly killed throughout the country. To some, that makes me an insane lefty. To me it’s just common sense.