Even midway through the 2017 season, then–49ers safety Eric Reid knew his protests against racial inequality could hamper his professional football career.
“I think [protesting is] the right thing to do, when I look back on my life, when I look back on my career, I will feel confident that I did the right thing,” Reid told The Mercury News’ Dieter Kurtenbach in late November. “So if I’m not in the league next year, there will be a process I will go through. … If I enter free agency and I’m not on a team next year, I’ll weigh all my options, legally, what have you.”
After nearly two months as a free agent, Reid is weighing those options. The 26-year-old Pro Bowl safety, the first player to kneel alongside Colin Kaepernick, has filed a collusion grievance against the NFL. Reid is represented by the same attorney, Mark Geragos, who is representing Colin Kaepernick in his own collusion suit against the NFL. Since Reid became a free agent on March 14, he has met with just one franchise: the Cincinnati Bengals.
Reid’s grievance, which is pursuant to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, is likely related to the same provision as Kaepernick’s: Article 17 of the CBA, which prohibits two or more teams from implicitly or explicitly agreeing not to sign a certain player. That sets a high burden of proof: Reid, like Kaepernick, will need to prove that an agreement was made to keep them out of the league, not just that protesting impacted their ability to be signed. (For a thorough breakdown of whether it is legal for teams to punish players for political protests, check out Mike Florio’s explainer at ProFootballTalk.)
Kaepernick’s grievance, which alleges collusion among owners, says they “have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick’s leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States.”
If the owners are found to have violated Article 17, the Players Association has the right to terminate the entire collective bargaining agreement, according to Article 69, Section 2 of the CBA. The NFL Players Association issued a statement supporting Reid.
Complicating Reid’s situation is the deflation of the overall safety market in 2018. Safeties Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro also remain unsigned, and two of the best safeties in this year’s draft—Derwin James and Reid’s brother Justin––went much later than many analysts projected.
At Justin’s pro day at Stanford in March, Eric Reid told Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area that he would continue to raise awareness for social justice issues in 2018 but that he probably would not kneel during the anthem in protest. But in Reid’s meeting with Cincinnati in early April, the conversation between him and Bengals owner and president Mike Brown reportedly centered “almost exclusively” on whether Reid would kneel during the national anthem.
In Kaepernick’s case, he and hist attorneys have been traveling around the country to interview witnesses in depositions. Among those that have already been deposed include Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Texans owner Bob McNair, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell’s wife, Jane, and even former Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter may be deposed as well.
“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 in September. “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.”