National Football League (NFL) players and team owners rejected President Donald Trump’s calls to fire protesting athletes by kneeling, linking arms and staying in locker rooms during pre-game national anthems all weekend. The actions received a mix of praise and criticism, including the sentiment that league executives (including Trump-supporting team owners like Shahid Khan, Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones) co-opted and erased the original goal of the protests: to denounce police violence against Black Americans.
Eric Reid understands the origin of the protests better than most. The San Francisco 49ers safety first took a knee alongside former teammate and current free agent Colin Kaepernick on September 12, 2016. In an editorial published by The New York Times yesterday (September 25), Reid makes it clear that the kneeling was a specific reaction to the racism that rules the American criminal justice system.
The Baton Rouge native describes feeling moved to act after learning about Alton Sterling, who Baton Rouge Police Department officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake killed in 2016. "This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area," Reid writes. "I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it."
Here’s how he describes the decision to kneel during the national anthem:
That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.
I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause, but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement. We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system. We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the NFL, to speak for those who are voiceless.
After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.
Reid repeatedly mentions the protest’s respectful intent, which he says critics misinterpret as disrespecting U.S. law enforcement and military personnel. "It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest," Reid writes. "It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’"
Kaepernick’s ongoing free agency inspires criticism that the league’s wealthy, predominantly White executives are punishing him and other Black players for taking up racial justice causes. Reid unapologetically agrees with this anaylsis and rejects suggestions that Kaepernick’s talent, and not his protest, is to blame:
Anybody who has a basic knowledge of football knows that his unemployment has nothing to do with his performance on the field. It’s a shame that the league has turned its back on a man who has done only good. I am aware that my involvement in this movement means that my career may face the same outcome as Colin’s. But to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And I choose not to betray those who are being oppressed.
I have too often seen our efforts belittled with statements like “He should have listened to the officer,” after watching an unarmed Black person get shot, or “There is no such thing as White privilege” and “Racism ended years ago.” We know that racism and White privilege are both very much alive today.
Speaking on last weekend, Reid writes that he feels "encouraged to see [his] colleagues and other public figures respond to [President Trump’s] remarks with solidarity with us." But he adds that, "It is paramount that we take control of the story behind our movement, which is that we seek equality for all Americans, no matter their race or gender."
Meanwhile, journalist Jamil Smith quoted Reid’s essay in his own op-ed for The Washington Post before admonishing what he sees as the league’s ineffectual actions:
The original protest was all about symbolism, as many civil rights actions are and should be. Eric Reid, a San Francisco 49ers safety who knelt with Kaepernick, wrote in the New York Times on Monday that “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” The intention was not disrespect, but they were still doing what they could to make the right people uncomfortable.
But once the league decided to launch its own NFL-branded “resistance,” that wasn’t on the agenda. What about a team standing with arms locked, doing the very thing Kaepernick deliberately did not do, makes anyone uncomfortable? Some players, such as Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, issued blistering condemnations of the president’s remarks. But what teams do together speaks loudest, and most showed little to indicate that they’re in this fight beyond this past weekend. The clear message was that the NFL would like some nice visuals out of all this hubbub, and maybe a little First Amendment magic dust on its logo. There was no sign that the league wanted to take a substantive stand on police violence or, heaven forbid, have to give Kaepernick a job.
Read Reid’s full essay at NYTimes.com.