Last Thursday, a month into the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers signed free agent safety Eric Reid, a former Pro Bowler who gained notoriety when he became the first player to join his then-teammate Colin Kaepernick in taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Reid’s signing was a significant move, and not just because the Panthers were desperate for talent in their defensive backfield after a rash of injuries. Reid has joined Kaepernick in a collusion lawsuit against the NFL, which alleges that NFL owners conspired to keep the two former San Francisco 49ers off the field because of their protest activities.
At his first press conference in Charlotte on Monday, Reid made it clear that his time away from the field had neither muted his desire to fight injustice, nor scared him away from speaking his mind. He wore an #IMWITHKAP t-shirt, signalling his continued solidarity with Kaepernick, and said that his collusion lawsuit would “without a doubt” continue, despite his one-year contract with the Panthers.
But the most powerful part of the press conference came when a reporter asked him why he felt compelled to continue to be an outspoken critic of racism in America, despite the career consequences he believes he has faced as a result.
“Next year will be 2019. It will mark 400 years since the first slaves touched the soil of this country. That’s 400 years of systemic oppression,” Reid said.
“That’s slavery, Jim Crow, new Jim Crow, mass incarceration, you name it. The Great Depression — they come out with the New Deal, and black people didn’t have access to those government stimulus packages. The New Deal set up what is known as the modern-day middle class. We didn’t have access to those programs, the GI Bill, social security, home loans, none of that. So this has been happening since my people have gotten here. And so, I just felt the need to say something about it.”
— Nick Carboni (@NickCarboniWCNC) October 1, 2018
This is a powerful message to deliver to reporters in North and South Carolina, considering both states voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. And it’s a statement that no Carolina Panther would have likely given a year ago. Jerry Richardson, the former owner of the Panthers, was notoriously conservative and controlling. But he was forced to sell the team last year after a Sports Illustrated report and subsequent NFL investigation revealed a disturbing history of sexism, harassment, and racism in the workplace.
The Panthers’ new owner, David Tepper, is much more open minded than Richardson, which paved the way for the team to sign Reid. According to Reid, the team did not ask him about his protest before it signed him. That was a change of pace for Reid — in April, the Cincinnati Bengals reportedly asked Reid whether he planned to take a knee or not during the national anthem while he was working out for them.
Reid said during the said during the press conference that he hasn’t decided yet what he will do during the national anthem this season. We’ll find out soon enough, though; he is expected to start and play significant minutes in Sunday’s home game against the New York Giants.
But no matter if he takes a knee or not, it is clear that Reid is here to make a statement, on and off the field. And, whether he gets signed to a team or not, Kaepernick will be by his side the whole way.
“[Kaepernick and I will] continue to hold America to the standard it says on paper, that we’re are created equal. Because it’s not that way right now. But we’re going to keep pushing towards that,” Reid said.
He knows there will likely be blowback from fans across the league, but that’s something he’s used to — not just because he took a knee during the national anthem for two straight seasons, but because of his life experience.
“I’m a black man in America. I grew up black in America, you cannot tell me that what I’ve experienced isn’t true,” he said.
“You can’t live in your own house in America without getting killed,” he added, referring to the murder of Botham Jean by an off-duty Dallas police officer who allegedly mistook Jean’s apartment for his own.
The Panthers have historically been a franchise that sticks to sports. That changed on Monday.
Reid ended the press conference with a very clear message: “I will keep speaking for my people.”