Will NFL Owners Bring Protesting Players To Their Knees In 2018 Free Agency?

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Since 2016, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid has been by the side of former teammate Colin Kaepernick in his quest for social justice.

In three months, the NFL’s free agency period will begin with the fanfare and fervor of Super Bowl week. During the 2017 spending frenzy, the non-signing of free agent Colin Kaepernick and the poor quality of quarterbacks signed in front of him dominated headlines throughout the regular season.

Since Kaepernick took a knee for racial inequality in August of 2016, several players have protested and lent their financial support to causes Kaepernick personally targeted. Two of the most outspoken players in this period have been Kaepenick’s former 49ers teammate Eric Reid and defensive lineman Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Reid is heading into free agency at the age of 26 while the 32 year-old Bennett is under contract with the Seahawks until 2020. Bennett could become a cap casualty in the off-season.

With Kaepernick out of the way will NFL owners — who sunk to unspeakable lows to discourage player protests and the like — seek to exact revenge on players who refused to bend?

 

Spoken words from a “leader” can either inspire or divide the masses. Enter the 45th President of The United States of America and his quest to “Make America Great Again”. Donald Trump settled on the plight of Colin Kaepernick his peaceful protest during the Star-Spangled Banner in 2016 and players who continued despite Kaepernick’s casting as a pariah. This was the ideal canvas to stir up once silent agents of bigotry and racism drowned out by eight years of President Barack Obama and a feeling of Black arrival. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan wasn’t about correcting mistakes and moving forward, it was all about turning back the clock and reminding anyone who felt they were now on a level playing field what things were really hittin’ for.

No collection of Americans hitched their hopes to Trump’s wagon quicker than NFL owners led by Jerry Jones and Bob McNair — respective owners of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. Jones, who believed the NFL was suffering from anthem protests proclaimed any player protesting during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner would not play for the Cowboys, while McNair likened the players open and peaceful protests to “inmates running the prison”.

The Sunday following Trump’s inflammatory “Son of a Bitch” speech at a Huntsville, Alabama rally, over 200 NFL players of all races and backgrounds either locked arms, took a knee, raised fists or remained in the locker room while the national anthem was played. Many owners, including Jerry Jones could be seen with players.

The tension in the NFL’s Kumbaya moment was indisputable, rich white men accustomed to being in control of everything within their reach for most their lives were rendered powerless, forced to remove their blinders and view life through a battered black lens.

Vice-President Mike Pence had a front row seat to player protests. During a Week 5 meeting between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, Pence barely stuck around for the opening kickoff, leaving after players from both teams protested during the national anthem. Prior to that game, Pence had not attended a Colts game in three years. Kinda ironic that he would show up when the team with the most players protesting was in town.

Eric Reid was the first player to take a knee following Colin Kaepernick and to this day has remained loyal to his former teammate and his cause. Philadelphia Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins was another advocate for Kaepernick the last two seasons — standing with a raised fist as the national anthem played. The players endured the wrath of corporations, fans, non-fans and even the Commander-In-Chief and still remained a united front.

Then $89 million happened.

In November, the NFL pledged $89 million to the players coalition — a program founded by Jenkins and retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin — to represent players silently protesting racial injustices. It became clear Reid and others were not comfortable with Boldin and Jenkins moving forward without a sit down with members of the coalition — most notably Kaepernick who is not a member, but the driving force behind its formation. Kaepernick has been shut out of meetings with the NFL Commissioner and owners. In light of these developments Reid and Miami Dolphins Safety Michael Thomas broke away from the coalition. Reid issued the following statement via Twitter:

“The Players Coalition was supposed to be formed as a group that represents NFL Athletes who have been silently protesting social injustices and racism,” the statement reads. “However, Malcolm and Anquan can no longer speak on our behalf as we don’t believe the coalition’s beliefs are in our best interests as a whole. 

“We will continue to have dialogue with the league to find equitable solutions but without Malcolm and Anquan as our representatives.”

The NFL’s motives for funding the coalition became more clear that the money would be donated with the hope that player protests during the national anthem would end. For this group to be so easily divided is disheartening and something Jenkins was warned about according to Reid.

“Myself and the aforementioned protesting players have voiced these concerns numerous times to Malcolm, concerning the structure of the organization and how we want to be involved more with the NFL in those communications. It has not transpired,” Reid told ESPN.

“We’ve come to find out that it’s actually Malcolm and Anquan’s organization. Nobody else really has a stake in the organization.”

With the divide and conquer strategy in full operation, the next step is to weed out the rabble rousers. This where the forthcoming free agency period could decide how things move forward in the immediate future.

Eric Reid is up for a new deal. In five seasons with the 49ers, Reid made the All-Rookie and Pro Bowl rosters in 2013 and started 69 of a possible 70 games and finished in the top three among team tackle leaders three times. Reid’s situation is interesting because he was moved from safety to weak side linebacker in mid-October with no assurances heading into the 2018 season.

And this is where the b.s. begins.

The 49ers know of Reid’s history and affiliation with Kaepernick and the acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garropolo looks like the team is looking to shift that spotlight on what’s happening on the field. Getting on the field for Reid could mean moving to linebacker where it took him some time to grow into the position or looking at an offer the team considers fair but he doesn’t. The 49ers are $120 million under the current salary cap, so I’m hopeful Reid gets a fair offer.

Let’s say Reid doesn’t agree with the offer and he’s on the open market, does a team like the Ravens or the Cowboys make an offer? What about that owner who needs a talent like Reid, but doesn’t want the attention he brings, does sit down with Reid or simply move on.

Regardless of what happens Reid doesn’t plan on changing his stance and is willing to deal with the consequences.

“I wouldn’t use the word concerned. I would say that I understand that that’s a possibility, and I’m completely fine with that,” Reid said. “The things that I’ve done, I stand by and I’ve done that for my own personal beliefs. Like I said, I’m fine with whatever outcome happens because if it.” When asked about potential backlash from other owners Reid responded, “It’s a possibility. There are probably teams that won’t want to talk to me because of it,” Reid said. “I’m hopeful that will be on a team next year but if not, that’s OK with me.”

It’s the same music but a different tune for Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett. The 32-year old veteran is under contract until 2020 and while he nor the Seahawks are getting any younger, his voice is needed in their locker room. Again, we reach a similar impasse, Bennett has been a stout supporter of Kaepernick as well as teammate Quinton Jefferson — who nearly went into the stands after he was hit with a beer after being ejected in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In a post game interview where Jefferson — who was obviously emotionally overwhelmed — began to unravel, it was Bennett, not Seahawks PR who came to his aid to cut the interview short.

Michael and his brother Martellus are advocates for social change which means they speak in a language that makes owners cringe and that could be a deterrent for the Brothers Bennett. We’ll see if the Seahawks, who have been supportive of Bennett will keep him on board or ask him to take a salary cut for the benefit of the team which could mean his departure.

Several protesting players are facing this reality as free agency looms. How many players teetering between special teams and the practice squad who wanted to be a part of something bigger will be tendered a new deal? What about that prized young corner who looks ready to crack the rotation, but drew the ire of the team owner in those moments leading to kickoff?

How many more Colin Kaepernicks are cast aside while rosters continue to be cheapened with the Mike Glennons and Jay Cutlers of the world?

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