Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins & the politics of compromise

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“I think it was James Baldwin that said, ‘To be Black in America and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant state of anger.’ It’s systemic oppression which is what I’m protesting. And neo-colonialism, man, it keeps happening. I would say he’s a neo-colonialist, yes.”

James Baldwin quotes? “Systemic oppression?” “Neo-colonialism?” Protests?

Are these postgame quotes from an NFL locker room or the late-night musings of your roommate from sophomore year?

Well, Eric Reid isn’t your typical NFL player, and his beef with Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins isn’t your standard athletic rivalry.

Reid, who had been unemployed for the past six months (likely because of his national anthem protests and close affiliation with former teammate Colin Kaepernick), signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers in late September. He has continued to kneel during the national anthem and is still moving forward with a collusion grievance against the NFL that also involves Kaepernick.

Reid’s issues with Jenkins were evident before the Eagles-Panthers game even started this past Sunday, as the two had to be separated at midfield during the coin toss before Reid took out his frustration on some of Jenkins’ teammates later in the game.

So what exactly is behind Reid’s antagonism toward Jenkins, and how does it involve race, social movements and character critiques?

The story begins with the national anthem protests that Kaepernick launched two years ago to protest social and racial injustice, particularly police brutality against Black men. The protests were a public relations minefield that was becoming increasingly politically toxic for the league, so the NFL was in desperate need of a solution to end the controversy.

Enter the Players Coalition, a group co-founded by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin representing player protesters, which negotiated with the commissioner and NFL owners over the national anthem issue. The group initially included Reid but not Kaepernick, who preferred to work on his own.

The coalition negotiated for months with the league, during which Reid and a few other members began to have disagreements with Boldin and Jenkins over what exactly was being discussed and who would spearhead the process.

Reid believed Kaepernick should lead the negotiations since he was the one who had started the protests and was now being blackballed by team owners because of his activism. Reid demanded that the coalition require an NFL team to sign Kaepernick before any kind of deal was discussed.

Led by Boldin and Jenkins, the other wing of the Players Coalition, while sympathetic to Kaepernick’s plight, stressed the need to focus on the big picture.

As Josh Norman told ESPN’s The Undefeated, “He knew there could be consequences. It’s not right what’s happening, but this is bigger than one person. We’re trying to help communities across this country.”

Jenkins and others claimed to have reached out to Kaepernick multiple times to join a meeting with NFL owners. Kaepernick, however, claims he was disinvited by both the coalition and the league, an assertion that both sides vigorously deny.

According to several players via The Undefeated, Kaepernick phoned into a conference call the day after the New York meeting and accused Jenkins of stealing his ideas (even though multiple members contend Kaepernick never submitted any ideas to the coalition). Reid also claimed Jenkins was trying to be the face of a movement that he and Kaepernick should lead.

Reid complained about the lack of transparency in talks with league representatives, so the group agreed to include multiple members in negotiations to ensure all viewpoints were represented. But only a few days after the agreement, Reid tried to arrange a phone call including himself, Roger Goodell and Kaepernick.

The news shocked the rest of the coalition.

Norman bemoaned Reid’s disrespect of popular consensus: “We were about the group and making progress, not about a few individuals. It sucks when you have a few who try to bring down the majority.”

The coalition moved forward with negotiations anyway and reached a final proposal that Jenkins sent to Reid to confirm he was comfortable with it. Jenkins never received a response.

Reid and a few other players left the coalition a few days later.

The coalition signed an agreement in which the NFL pledged to donate $89 million to various social justice causes and the Players Coalition itself.

The Reid camp viewed the deal as a form of hush money and believed more conditions should have been attached to funding. Jenkins’ decision to stop protesting during the anthem further angered Reid and company.

Jenkins maintains that the deal did not influence his decision to stop protesting. Rather, he claimed he grew weary of soft public support for the demonstrations and said, “It’s important for us as a movement to continue to adapt to the context of the situation.”

The frayed relationship finally came into the view of the public eye Sunday, and Reid only deepened the divide with his postgame comments. After the game, he told reporters, “I believe Malcolm capitalized on the situation. He co-opted the movement that was started by Colin to get his (Players Coalition) organization funded. It’s cowardly. He sold us out.”

The conflict between the two safeties reflects a pattern that is endemic to all social movements — the battle between compromise and hard-line stances, between radicalism and moderation. Combine this with ego as well as the desire for individual recognition, and you have yourself an ugly conflict like this in which a movement fractures, with participants gravitating toward radical or moderate stances, respectively.

Some will undoubtedly follow Kaepernick and Reid’s lead while others will side with Jenkins, but at the end of the day, both have helped spark passion for social justice and activism in professional sports.

As UC Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards, who is widely regarded as an intellectual leader of athlete activism, told The Undefeated, “Look, I love Eric Reid and Kaep, but the reality is that the movement has grown so much bigger than the people who started it.”

It doesn’t look like it’ll be ending anytime soon.

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