NEW YORK — More than a year ago, Eric Reid joined Colin Kaepernick in the quiet act of taking a knee during the national anthem, to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice. Today, the 49ers safety wore an “#IMWITHKAP” T-shirt as he emerged from a meeting at NFL headquarters about the movement Reid’s former teammate began last summer.
For a little more than three and a half hours on Tuesday morning, 11 NFL team owners and more than a dozen players, along with commissioner Roger Goodell and players association executive director DeMaurice Smith, met privately at league headquarters as the debate over anthem demonstrations grips the NFL. No policy changes were discussed in this meeting; how the league and players handle the anthem was merely a tangential point. Instead, the focus was on the social issues underlying some players’ decisions to demonstrate during the anthem, and how the league and the individual clubs can better support the players’ work on these issues.
“I think it’s a starting point, and that’s purely it,” Reid said, while lugging his suitcase down Lexington Avenue. “This is a long-term project, if you want to call it that. There wasn’t much that was going to happen in a two-hour meeting. We are going to continue to meet, continue to have dialogue and figure out a way to get these issues on track.”
Reid joined Kaepernick in taking a knee all during the 2016 season. While his former teammate is currently out of the NFL—and this weekend filed a grievance for collusion against NFL owners over his unemployment—Reid has knelt in every regular-season game in 2017 as well, making the decision to do so again after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this August. Reid said on Tuesday, after the meeting with owners, that he will continue to take a knee during the anthem before games.
“We started this to raise awareness and to effectuate change,” Reid said. “We’re on the path to make the change we think we can make, we are just not there yet.”
The meeting Tuesday morning ran longer than expected, while the rest of the owners and executives waited at a hotel in lower Manhattan for the already scheduled quarterly league meetings to begin in the afternoon. That was a good thing, not a bad thing. Making a meeting like this happen is a credit to both Goodell and Smith, though both sides acknowledged much more work is yet to be done—which is why Reid intends to continue to take a knee. Leaving the meeting, other players referred to taking a knee, raising a fist or staying in the locker room for the anthem as “individual decisions.”
That was a clear indication that no policy change on the anthem is expected, such as requiring players to stand (as the NBA does) or playing the anthem while players are still in the locker room (as was done before 2009). In fact, there is no such policy change on the agenda for the league meeting ongoing through Wednesday—just a plan for the NFL to present a framework for the league to better support their players on social justice issues, such as in-season platforms to promote work like the criminal justice reform advocacy that Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins is leading in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think they can make a rule change,” Reid said. “The point of the meeting was to just discuss these issues and how they are all of our issues; how we’ll collaborate on how to make those issues better.”
Reid was presumably referring to any rule potentially needing to be collectively bargained, but another factor is the pushback the NFL would likely receive from players if they moved to require them to stand—seemingly counter to the open ear the league tried to lend in a meeting like the one held Tuesday. The league includes owners falling on both ends of the spectrum on this issue, from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying he will not play any player who does not stand for the anthem, to 49ers owner Jed York telling Reid that he supports his decision to kneel and would not force players to adhere to any code during the anthem.
The consistent message from the league office has been to “move past” the anthem demonstrations to address social issues in other ways. One notable absence at the meeting Tuesday morning was the man who began this movement, Kaepernick. The player invites were left up to the NFL Players Association and the Players Coalition led by Jenkins and others. Jenkins said after the meeting that Kaepernick had been invited, and he did not know why he did not attend. Mark Geragos, Kaepernick’s lawyer in his collusion case, released a statement in which he said that Kaepernick was invited by other players but not by the NFL and that Kaepernick is “open to future participation on these important discussions.”
Reid, who has supported Kaepernick with both words and actions since his demonstrations began, says he brought his former teammate’s absence up during the meeting Tuesday morning.
“I did bring up in the meeting how this started with him, and we need to get the messaging straight surrounding him,” Reid said. “They heard me, and they agreed.”
Reid said whether or not Kaepernick will be in attendance next time is “to be determined.” It was just an initial conversation, he said. Both sides need to continue to meet and figure out how to proceed next. That, overall, was the message of the day. Reid joined Kaepernick in a quiet movement last summer, and more than a year later the focus has finally shifted to the underlying reasons why. The next step is answering the question, how can we help?
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