SANTA CLARA, Calif. — More than a year since San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick first began kneeling during the national anthem as a silent protest of racial inequality in the United States, they believe that their original message has been lost in translation.
As nearly every team in the NFL had players participating in some form of protest on the heels of President Donald Trump’s comments about NFL players kneeling during the anthem, Reid and Kaepernick wondered what would have happened had more players joined their cause sooner.
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“He thinks that [the weekend’s protest] was a direct response to, obviously, what the president said,” Reid said. “He wishes that this many people were involved last year. I don’t think the narrative would have went in as many directions as it went if we had more solidarity. We could have focused in on these issues, but we have got to be pragmatic about it. We have this opportunity now, and it’s important that we discuss the issues and make changes.”
After Trump made his initial comments Friday night, teams began releasing statements from their owners all day Saturday and devising different ways to voice their displeasure Sunday.
Some teams, including the Steelers, Seahawks and Titans, did not come out of the locker room for the national anthem, with Pittsburgh saying Monday that the goal was to avoid making a political statement, not an act of protest.
The Niners, who had already played Thursday night before Trump’s Friday night comments, have had discussions about potential demonstrations before Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Coach Kyle Shanahan met with his team and leadership council Monday and said Wednesday the team intends to do “something together” this week, though they hadn’t yet decided what form that will take.
Many organizations opted to link arms, with some owners even joining the players and coaches on the field in a sign of unity. While players such as Reid and Arizona safety Antoine Bethea appreciated the team-focused protests, there was also some concern that those displays focused on unity had obscured the original protests’ intent.
“Don’t get me wrong, linking arms is a great thing,” Bethea, who held up his right fist during the anthem while standing next to Kaepernick and Reid for some games last year, said. “We do want to be unified. At the end of the day, unity is going to help bring us together, but I do think that sometimes, you lose what the point [is] that people are trying to get across when people are taking that peaceful protest. I do believe that.
“It’s a tough situation. It’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you know what I’m saying? Trust me, it’s a tough situation. This is a team sport, and, at times, you don’t want to single yourself out and be that individual. But then you are fighting with the things of ‘What do you really believe in?’ … Either way you look at it, there’s going to be people praising you, and it’s going to be people coming at you with a negative tone. That’s what I’ve seen since last year.”
Reid, who is currently dealing with a left knee injury and normally wouldn’t be made available to speak while injured, talked to the Bay Area media for about 20 minutes Wednesday. In that discussion, he hit on a variety of topics and attempted to steer the conversation toward the issues that he and Kaepernick first wanted to address as well as what he hopes will come next.
Throughout the course of the session, Reid repeatedly referred to notes he had on his phone from friend Clint Smith, a writer, teacher and Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, who has focused his research on mass incarcerations, the sociology of racism and the history of inequality in the U.S.
Among the topics Reid specifically addressed were police brutality, social injustice, the bail system and the importance of local government elections, specifically with district attorneys. Along the way, he retraced the steps of inequality starting with the Great Depression through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively.
Reid went on to point out that he believes making changes in the areas he and Kaepernick first started protesting starts with education on those topics, followed by conversations about them.
“I think these conversations make people uncomfortable, and I think that’s a way for them to deflect from the issues that we really want to talk about and steer the narrative in a different direction,” Reid said. “And so, my goal is to do a better job this time around of controlling the narrative, talking about the issues, which I hope we can talk about today and getting people to understand why we’re doing it, because these issues are real.”
Asked who he believes the leader for that movement is, Reid said Kaepernick is “without a doubt.” Kaepernick remains unsigned after parting ways with the Niners in March but has continued his charitable donations and work in the community, such as his “Know Your Rights” camps.
One thing Kaepernick hasn’t done is speak publicly since the end of the 2016 season, something Reid said he would like to see even if he doesn’t know when that might happen.
“I have spoken to him a lot over the past couple of weeks, so I’m not sure,” Reid said. “He hasn’t given me an answer to that. I’ll ask him again, but I’m hoping that he does say something.”
From there, Reid is hoping that athletes from various sports can use their platforms to continue to push toward change on the actual issues rather than worrying about the methodology of protest.
Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins about the work he has done with criminal justice reform, and the pair is trying to set up an event focusing on that in San Francisco in the near future.
Those are the small things Reid and Kaepernick are hoping can eventually add up to making a big impact, even if the results aren’t instant.
“It’s a long journey to get these issues corrected. Like I said, it’s decades on top of decades, and to get things fixed is going to take a long time,” Reid said. “It’s going to take people that really care about the situation, take people that want to have these uncomfortable situations, so I hope we can move on. That’s the next step, is moving on to making changes, and I hope that we can get some change out of that.”