No more safety: Eric Reid’s absence is no accident

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It’s easy to forget.

Easy to forget when people are busy burning their Nike gear. Easy to forget when you’re reading opinion pieces about who’s right and who’s wrong. Easy to forget when the talking heads on television are taking sides. Easy to forget when you watch a commercial narrated by one iconic voice.

It’s easy to forget that Colin Kaepernick isn’t the only player who has been blackballed by the NFL.

Eric Reid, former 49ers safety and Kaepernick’s former teammate, who joined his quarterback in taking a knee during the national anthem, is also out of a job for making a political statement.

The 26-year-old played all five of his NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft. The LSU product further solidified a team that was coming off a Super Bowl loss and a defense that had finished the season as the second best unit in the league.

In his rookie season, Reid accounted for 73 tackles and four interceptions while his team came within one game of reaching the Super Bowl. He secured a place on the All-Rookie team and even garnered himself a Pro Bowl selection.

Over his next four seasons, Reid displayed remarkable consistency, providing positional stability during a time of rampant turnover for the franchise and a sense of veteran leadership on a young, rebuilding squad. Last season, Reid finished with the third most tackles on the team and was tied for the team-high interception total with two.

When looking at his career, Reid proved to be a valuable and reliable player on bad teams and a phenomenal one on good teams. He’s still a talented player with veteran leadership skills who has postseason experience. He can play both safety positions and even linebacker. Clearly, he’s a dynamic and versatile athlete who deserves to be on an NFL roster.

The fact that Reid isn’t on a team this season raised many eyebrows around the league and drew more than a few rumblings that it was related to his anthem protest. Unsurprisingly, Reid filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, similar in scope to Kaepernick’s. It accuses the NFL’s owners of coming to an agreement to forgo signing players who took part in the anthem protests because they’re “bad for business.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell has denied anything of the sort. The case is ongoing.

Reid’s unemployment coincided with a weak market for free agent safeties around the league this past offseason, with one league executive explaining it as a result of “the lack of top-end speed among free agent safeties.”

Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey reasoned that the position has changed, explaining that “Not only has the game gone vertical, it’s stretched horizontally as well. So what do you do? You have to increase the speed component on your back end.” The implication is that bigger safeties such as Reid are being replaced with smaller, speedier athletes in the secondary.

NFL safeties themselves, however, have developed their own, darker theories as to why the safety market dried up during the offseason. Arizona Cardinals safety Tre Boston stated bluntly to the Ringer, “People have to think beyond just one person. How are you going to look at a market where you sign everybody and one person is left? You don’t put yourself in that predicament. You devalue the whole market.”

Boston believes that the owners are trying to cover themselves up for not signing Reid by lowballing the entire free agent safety class. He pointed to the lucrative contracts that the previous free agent safety class signed the year before and the notable drop-off this past offseason.

Whether or not conspiracy is truly afoot, Reid himself seems to be at peace with his choices.

“I am aware that my involvement in this movement means that my career may face the same outcome as Colin’s,” Reid wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “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.”

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].