ORLANDO — The offseason presses on for the NFL. And with it, the undone nature of player protests and what kind of long-term resolution remains on the table – if any. But with the league’s annual meeting in Orlando wrapping on Wednesday, a more pressing point is coming to the forefront that could present yet another befuddling public relations problem for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Colin Kaepernick is completely off the NFL grid and his collusion case against the league has shifted into a full-court press of depositions. The issue of anthem kneeling is still lingering, with some owners clearly still adamant that such protests come to an end. But one new wrinkle in this continued PR nightmare of the league is becoming more prominent: former San Francisco 49ers strong safety Eric Reid can’t get any traction whatsoever in free agency.
When pressed for whether Reid’s nonexistent market is sending yet another message to players – intended or unintended – Goodell’s stance shaped up like the familiar shrug that he has consistently delivered regarding Kaepernick’s unemployment.
“Guys, I’ve said this repeatedly to you: the 32 teams make their individual decisions on the players that they think are going to best help their franchises,” Goodell said Wednesday. “Those are decisions that they have to make. They do that every day. They do that in the best interests of winning and putting the best franchises together. They’ll make those decisions. I’m not directly involved with those.”
In light of the collusion Kaepernick is already alleging in his own circumstance, the nonexistent pursuit of Reid by NFL teams has certainly been raising eyebrows amongst players and agents since free agency began two weeks ago. Particularly given the reality that Reid not only kneeled with Kaepernick in San Francisco, but also repeatedly suggested that Kaepernick’s employment should have been a part of the platform negotiated between owners and a player’s coalition over the last six months.
Prior to free agency, Reid wondered whether his support of Kaepernick or anthem kneeling might cost him a job in the NFL. And when he was greeted with a flat market, he indicated on Twitter that the problem was in the ownership ranks – not among football evaluators.
“GMs aren’t the hold up broski. It’s ownership,” Reid tweeted on March 15, speculating on potential issues in free agency. “People who know football know who can play. People who know me, know my character.”
That Reid remains unemployed is notable for a variety of reasons. Not only is he a 26-year-old former first-round pick who made a Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2013, he’s considered (at worst) to be an above-average starter at his position amongst NFL evaluators. He’s also gotten the endorsement of some of the best safeties in the NFL – including the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and New England Patriots’ Devin McCourty – who have each expressed dismay that Reid has gone weeks in free agency without interest from teams.
Both Jenkins and McCourty have said publicly they believe Reid’s lack of a free-agent market is due to his being outspoken about social justice and supporting Kaepernick. The proof of that – beyond the reality of Reid’s skill set being deserving of a job – is elusive, largely for the same reasons it has been difficult to prove that the league colluded against Kaepernick. Like Kaepernick, there has been no “smoking gun” to suggest flatly that teams aren’t signing Reid because of his previous activism or his support of a player who is accusing the NFL of a conspiracy.
There’s also the reality that the safety market has been oddly flat in this free agency, suggesting that Reid is feeling the same frosty reception as others at his position. To that point, former Packers safety Morgan Burnett signed a relatively modest three-year, $14.3 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and former Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu took a fairly cut-rate one-year deal for $7 million from the Houston Texans. Another solid starter – the New Orleans Saints Kenny Vaccaro – has also yet to sign in free agency.
But even the lackluster safety market in free agency has fueled some conspiratorial opinions tied to Reid – most notably that teams are slow-rolling the safeties in free agency so that it’s not obvious Reid is being singled out in his lack of interest.
As one agent said this week, “The only reason [Reid] isn’t sticking out like a sore thumb is because there are other guys around him who are getting a cold shoulder, too. But when those other guys sign – and they will all sign – that can’t be used for cover anymore.”
Regardless of how long that takes, the prominence of Reid’s unemployment is only going to become a bigger story. Particularly with the NFL still having internal ownership struggles over how to handle any anthem kneeling that lingers into next season. That much was obvious when Houston Texans owner Bob McNair arrived to the meetings with a renewed message against such a form of protest.
“Our playing field is not the place for political statements [and] not the place for religious statements,” McNair said at the start of the meetings. “It’s the place for football. … I think we all need to respect our flag and respect our country. I think we’ll figure out a way to make sure that we do that. We’ll have discussions about it.”
The NFL owners did have those discussions. But it apparently didn’t produce anything meaningful, leaving the league’s slate of spring meetings in Atlanta in May to sort through potential rules changes and debates.
“There was some discussion on the anthem, but only in the context of, ‘Is this the platform in which to help the players address these issues in their communities and make sure that we’re in a better place,’ ” Goodell said. ” … [Whether a rule change is necessary is] something that the ownership and I will continue to discuss and focus on as we feel is needed.”
If it’s not needed now, that day may be coming in the next few months. Because there is plenty left undone for the league when it comes to player protests. The debate amongst owners clearly isn’t going away. And the pressure over retribution will only become a more prominent subject the longer Reid remains unemployed.
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