When a contentious pregame argument between Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins unfolded Sunday, I sighed and shook my head.
I did the same hours later, albeit more vehemently, when Reid called Jenkins a “sellout” and a “neo-colonialist” after the game. I did not do so out of anger or frustration. Instead, it was rooted in sadness and vacillation, and I’d be willing to bet many African-American NFL players — many of whom must feel like they are stuck in the middle of two warring parents — shared the sentiment.
By now, the source of Reid’s frustration is no secret. He feels contempt toward Jenkins and other members of the Players Coalition for their role in negotiating an $89 million donation from NFL team owners for social justice causes. It was perceived by some as a bribe of sorts to discontinue the players’ powerful (but controversial) protests during the pregame national anthem that have brought attention to the causes of social injustice and police brutality.
Reid’s not the only one who feels this way. When he quit the coalition last November, a handful of other notable players did so as well, noting that the whole thing felt like a payoff.
A logical person can at least understand why Reid is frustrated, though from afar, calling Jenkins — who does care about his people and backs it up with his actions regularly — a “sellout” and “neo-colonialist” seems wholly unproductive, at best, and outright unfair, at worst. Irrespective of that, it’s worth noting that Reid and Colin Kaepernick, his former teammate with the San Francisco 49ers, are close, and to him, Kaepernick’s unemployment in the NFL was linked to the protests. That’s fair considering anyone with eyes can see that Kaepernick is better than some starting quarterbacks in the NFL, let alone backups. It’s why Kaepernick has a collusion grievance against the league.
Yet, when it became clear late last year that those in charge of the Players Coalition (including Jenkins) were prepared to accept the owners’ offer without leveraging their powerful position to stand up for Kaepernick — the man who started the whole movement in the first place — and get him a job, it’s easy to see how that could feel like a betrayal to Reid, a proud man who is big on values.
A good counterargument is that Jenkins and the coalition made the right decision in taking the owners’ offer. Money talks in America, always will, and what started as one man sitting in protest before a football game had all of a sudden been leveraged into $89 million of cold, hard cash from the greedy NFL owners. That’s no simple feat. This is the same multibillion-dollar league that nickels and dimes its employees and support staff in nearly every city. The NFL is a business, and it operates that way. Never forget that.
Yet here the coalition was, suddenly offered $89 million that would be earmarked over the next seven years for causes that would surely help a considerable chunk of the disadvantaged people the group was taking a stand for. At that point, the question became: Is Kaepernick’s quest for employment — one he made much more difficult for himself when he filed a wide-ranging collusion suit against the entire league last October — more important than the greater good? The Players Coalition said no – and a reasonable person would understand why.
After all, other than Kaepernick’s vaguely stated purpose of ending the “systematic oppression of black and brown” people, what was the end game supposed to be if the players rejected the owners’ offer and held out for Kaepernick getting signed, something that was never going to happen since he filed that grievance? It was a matter of practicality vs. idealism, and for those black players stuck in the middle, that’s a no-win choice since Jenkins and Reid made good points.
And now, nearly a year later, the tensions haven’t cooled between Reid and Jenkins, and it’s sad because here are two strong black men, both of whom are socially conscious and aware of their platform, natural alphas with the right intentions. They have done tangible work to help the less fortunate and want the same thing, holistically — a better, fairer country for their people — but disagree on how to get there. And because of this, they’ve been positioned as de facto enemies.
And the real shame of it is it’s reasonable to assume that’s what the team owners wanted. Don’t believe it? Check out what an anonymous NFL owner told ESPN’s Howard Bryant in his rundown of the entire situation in January.
“The players had real leverage,” the owner told ESPN. “But we knew we could sit back and watch them implode.”
Disgusting. But that owner was right, and all the billionaires had to do was pull the oldest trick in the divide and conquer playbook, which is throw money at the problem and let the enemy battle over loyalty and approach. Instead of continuing to criticize team owners for their truly awful new anthem policy, which generated so much backlash this summer they were forced to put it on hold in lieu of a better alternative, what are we talking about now? The fracture of the Players Coalition, and tension between key figures in the anthem protests.
To Jenkins’ credit, he has tried to diffuse all this by wisely refusing to speak ill of Reid. But Washington cornerback Josh Norman, who is also a member of the coalition, again stoked the flames of disdain when he came to the defense of Jenkins on Thursday, calling Reid’s comments a “slap in the face.”
And as soon as I read about Norman’s comments, I immediately frowned and shook my head once again, overcome by the same sense of sadness and vacillation, just like Sunday. One moment, I get where Reid’s coming from. The next moment, I’m with Jenkins. It’s a bad place to be because with so many fights left to be waged in the NFL — particularly on the issue of protests, where a solution between the owners and the players has yet to be officially agreed upon — black players can’t afford to be battling each other; in this cause, they need to be united against the league and its ownership.
Remember, ownership still hasn’t answered for Kaepernick being unemployed. It’s ownership that was tone-deaf enough to revive this anthem debate by enacting a stupid, widely panned rule that took everyone — even players — by surprise. It’s ownership that, instead of supporting their players at their attempt to draw attention to the worthy causes of social injustice and police brutality at the outset, opted to throw money at the “problem” and open the door to player infighting. But most importantly, it’s also ownership that will likely attempt to seek an in-writing resolution to anthem conduct, just like the NBA did nearly 20 years ago, when the collective-bargaining agreement runs out in 2021.
While choosing between Jenkins and Reid is damn near impossible for even the most thoughtful of African-Americans in and around the game, this much at the moment is clear: If the players involved want to maximize the exposure for their dual causes of shining light on the atrocities of social injustice and police brutality, it would help — in the name of unity — for everyone to get headed in the same direction, at least publicly. And quick.
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