CHARLOTTE — As Eric Reid waited for offers that never came in the days, weeks and months after the free agent signing period opened in March, he confronted the possibility that he might never play pro football again — unspoken retribution, perhaps, for being the first NFL player to join Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem to protest social and racial injustice.
On Monday, Reid was back on an NFL practice field for the first time in nine months, having signed a one-year deal last week with the Carolina Panthers, who desperately needed a veteran defensive back with his skill and experience.
In meeting with reporters afterward, Reid made clear where he stood before uttering a word, taking the podium for a news conference in a black shirt that read “#IMWITHKAP.”
According to Reid, the Panthers never asked during the negotiations that preceded his signing during the team’s bye week if he planned to continue kneeling during pregame anthem ceremonies. On Monday, he declined to say what his plans were for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants, should he be ready to suit up after one week of practice, as Coach Ron Rivera hopes.
“I said that I would be considering other ways [to advocate for justice], and I’m still considering,” said Reid, repeating a sentiment he voiced in March, when he told reporters that he didn’t think his advocacy during the 2018 NFL season would include protests during the anthem.
But Reid was unequivocal about his plan to continue with the formal grievance he has filed against the NFL alleging collusion.
“Without a doubt. Yes,” he said.
In many respects, it would seem that the Panthers’ decision to hire Reid would gut his claim that the NFL and its owners colluded in denying him employment because of his public stances.
But that’s not so, according to Gabe Feldman, professor of law and director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane.
“I would say the optics are better for the league, but legally speaking, this won’t have any impact on the grievance for a number of reasons,” Feldman said in a phone interview Monday. “Primarily, the fact that the Carolina Panthers have decided to sign Eric Reid now does not prove that other teams weren’t colluding to not sign him in the last months.”
It only takes two NFL teams — or the NFL office and one NFL team — to amount to a conspiracy. Reid could also still mount a claim that his earning potential was diminished as a result.
Reid cited his grievance — which is separate from a similar one that Kaepernick has filed against the league — several times early in the news conference, explaining that he couldn’t go into detail about contract talks because it was part of his case.
But he was expansive, and powerfully so, when asked how he weighed the prospect of losing his job in the NFL, as a 26-year-old husband and father of two, and his commitment to social activism.
“I’ll put it this way: Next year will be 2019,” Reid said. “It will mark 400 years since the first slaves touched the soil in this country. That’s 400 years of systemic oppression — that’s slavery, Jim Crow, new Jim Crow, mass incarceration, you name it. The Great Depression, they come out with the New Deal, black people didn’t have access to those government stimulus packages. The New Deal set up what is known as the modern-day middle class. We didn’t have access to those programs — the G.I. Bill, social security, home loans, none of that.
“So this has been happening since my people have gotten here. And so I just felt the need to say something about it.”
In the locker room after Monday’s practice, Carolina players spoke glowingly about the team’s decision to sign Reid, after placing safety Da’Norris Searcy on injured reserve following a second concussion in a five-week span.
Reid’s NFL credentials are well known: He was a first-round draft pick (18th overall) out of LSU in 2013, earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie, and has been a consistent difference-maker in the defensive backfield over his first five seasons in the league. He registered 67 tackles, two interceptions and four passes defensed for San Francisco last season.
“We’re a team that comes with open arms,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who marveled Monday at Reid’s size (6-foot-1, 213 pounds), football smarts and fitness, particularly because he last played a game on Dec. 31.
“We’re looking at it as a player coming in that can help us. We’re not worried about everybody outside talking about, ‘Oh, man, what he’s going to do when the national anthem [is played]; what he’s going to do? We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about winning football games, and this guy definitely can contribute to us winning games.”
Privately, a few acknowledged that the signing probably wouldn’t have happened under the Panthers’ founding owner, Jerry Richardson, who was forced to sell the team in May following an investigation into workplace misbehavior.
Rivera declined to broach the topic, saying: “This is a football decision. I’m not going to get into that part of it.”
While many of the NFL’s 32 owners favor a zero-tolerance policy for statements of social activism on the sidelines, the Panthers’ new owner, David Tepper, who bought the team for $2.275 billion, sharply defended players in a recent interview with CNBC. Tepper said that efforts to cast players’ activism as unpatriotic was “the biggest pile of bull-dingy ever” and said of NFL players: “These are some of the most patriotic people and best people. These are great young men, so that makes me aggravated and angry. It’s just wrong, dead wrong.”
Reid said little about the process that led him to the Panthers but confirmed he had only one other offer (from his former squad, the 49ers) and that he chose Carolina because it was a better deal. With it, he regains a platform — both for his defensive skills and his social advocacy.
“As we said when we started, Colin and I, nothing will change unless we talk about it,” Reid said. “So we’re going to continue to talk about it, we’re going to continue to hold America to the standard that it says on paper — that we’re all created equal. Because it’s not that way right now. But we’re going to keep pushing towards that.”