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The NFL’s $100 Million Ploy to Stop Player Protests

The 49ers’ Eric Reid was asked if he’d stop kneeling during the national anthem if the league donated money to social justice organizations.

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 02:   (L-R) Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on Oct. 2, 2016, in Santa Clara, California. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A major split emerged on Wednesday between a pair of NFL players who have spent more than a year using their platform to protest racial injustice. On one side is the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, who has raised his fist during the national anthem since early in the 2016 season. Jenkins wants to work with the NFL through his Players Coalition—a group of more than 40 NFL players he leads with retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin—to raise awareness of the need for criminal justice reform. On the other side is the San Francisco 49ers’ Eric Reid, who kneeled during the anthem alongside Colin Kaepernick last year and continues to do so now that Kaepernick is out of the league. On Wednesday, Reid and the Miami Dolphins’ Michael Thomas released identical statements saying they were leaving the Players Coalition. “Malcolm and Anquan can no longer speak on our behalf as we don’t believe the coalition’s beliefs are in our best interests as a whole,” Reid and Thomas said. “We will continue to have dialogue with the league to find equitable solutions but without Malcolm and Anquan as our representatives.”

ESPN’s Jim Trotter and Jason Reid reported the split between Jenkins and Thomas as part of a piece on Wednesday laying out the terms of a deal in which the league “would contribute nearly $100 million to causes considered important to African-American communities.” Later on Wednesday, the Washington Post published a story indicating that NFL players, led by Jenkins’ Players Coalition, had reached a “tentative agreement” with the league on such a deal. After the publication of the ESPN story, Trotter tweeted that “there is no quid pro quo between the NFL and the Players Coalition that players will cease protesting in exchange for financial support from the owners. The league understands that some players will continue to protest, but it is seeking to move forward anyway.”

A source with direct knowledge of the communications between Reid and other members of the Players Coalition says the 49ers player has major concerns about the deal. Reid is worried that the NFL is trying to co-opt the players’ nascent social justice movement. And counter to what Trotter reported on Wednesday, the source says the 49ers player was specifically asked if he would stop protesting if the league made donations to charity.

“Eric received a message,” the source told Slate. “The comment was: Would you be willing to end the protests if they made a donation?”

Jenkins said on Wednesday that he’d stop protesting during the national anthem if he’s able to come to terms with the league. “For me personally, this whole protest has been to draw awareness,” he said, according to Pennlive.com. “So if the league is proposing something I feel like can replace that or amplify that voice then I see no need in me continuing to protest, but those conversations are still being had.”

Reid, though, is not willing to end his protest on what he believes to be the NFL’s terms. “The message that was being sent within the coalition was that this should end the protests, and that was unacceptable [to Reid],” the source said.

A representative for Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment from Slate on Wednesday. But in interviews throughout the day, he described the schism between himself and Reid as more a power struggle than a matter of substance. “For this to now be less about the actual work and more about who wants to be in the forefront or be the leader is disappointing,” Jenkins told Trotter. “It’s especially disappointing for us to hear this in the media and now be put in a position where we have to answer all of these questions.”

Jenkins seemed to soften his criticism in comments reported by Pennlive.com. “Whenever you get as many players as we have involved in the coalition—we’ve got guys represented from almost every team—there’s always differences of opinion,” he said. “But I feel like everybody’s been included, they’ve been informed and it’s been a pretty transparent process. So I was a little bit surprised that they separated themselves, but I understand a lot of these things are personal, and guys want to make sure whatever they are doing or getting involved in speaks to their heart and is something they feel comfortable getting behind. So I respect their decisions.”

As far as Reid is concerned, the splintering of the Players Coalition stems from Jenkins’ lack of transparency. “Myself and other protesting players are departing from the Players Coalition because we aren’t satisfied with the structure of the Players Coalition and the communication that’s been happening between Malcolm and the NFL,” Reid told ESPN. “Myself and the aforementioned protesting players have voiced these concerns numerous times to Malcolm concerning the structure of the organization and how we want to be involved more with the NFL in those communications. It has not transpired.”

According to the source with knowledge of the communications between Reid and the Players Coalition, Reid was kept out of recent important calls between the league and Jenkins and was told he could not come to proposed meetings with legal representation. The source says Reid feared that the negotiations were a “publicity stunt,” one that was “being rushed” to take pressure off Roger Goodell given the commissioner’s fraught contract negotiations.

“The view was that this was being co-opted by [NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations] Troy Vincent and Roger Goodell in advance of December discussions on his contract,” the source said. Jenkins and Vincent, himself a former member of the Eagles, have been the key negotiators between players and the league.

An NFL source disputed this notion. “The PR stunt point is absurd,” the league source told Slate. “These conversations started in August, the contract negotiation didn’t rear its head until much later, so they have nothing to do with one another.”

With regard to the proposed deal between players and the league, Reid had specific concerns with the structure for dispensing between $90 million and $100 million in the next six years. According to ESPN’s reporting, the proposal suggests creating a “joint working group of five players, five owners (or owners’ representatives) and two NFL staff members [that] would help identify future initiatives to pursue.” The source familiar with Reid’s conversations says this 7 vs. 5 dynamic—the five owners and two NFL staffers on one side, and the five players on the other—“could create a scenario where future contributions are being controlled by the owners and the league, including a situation where owners are putting terms on free speech.”

Reid’s other significant concern was that the league could simply shuffle around funds that had already been allocated to charity projects, or spend the money on public service announcements that essentially served as advertising for the league itself. There is precedent for this sort of scenario: In 2015, Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz reported that the NFL’s domestic violence initiative was essentially an engine of brand promotion for the league.

The players were also reportedly strong-armed into accepting a deal under a tight deadline—one that happens to come two weeks ahead of owner discussions on Goodell’s contract. “The message that was communicated to Eric was that if a deal wasn’t reached soon then the league might take action during the offseason,” the source familiar with the discussions said. Reid was led to believe that the action taken during the offseason could include banning protests entirely, a move President Donald Trump has urged the NFL to make.

Jenkins, for his part, has made contradictory statements about other players’ involvement in the negotiations with the league. “I’m not sure about whether Kaepernick wants to be involved,” Jenkins said on Wednesday. “We’ll continue to work with whoever wants to be in that conversation.” Jenkins has previously said, though, that Kaepernick was invited to attend meetings between league officials and players and had opted not to attend. As I reported last month, however, Kaepernick was actually frozen out of these discussions, according to emails his representatives sent to Jenkins and to officials at the NFL Players Association.

While Jenkins and Reid have profound disagreements about the direction of the players’ social justice movement, both men are unquestionably sincere in their beliefs. Jenkins has been a forceful leader on criminal justice issues, writing in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post about the “extraordinary burden” the system places on “communities of color”:

Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have destroyed lives, families and whole communities for generations. Communities of color have also had to watch video after video of unarmed black men and women being handled without regard for their lives or well-being. As a black man, I see these images and I see myself; I wonder whether this will happen to me or one of my loved ones.

Reid has also been a powerful advocate for racial justice. After President Trump declared that any player who protested during the anthem was a “son of a bitch” who needed to be “fired,” Reid published an essay in the New York Times explaining the lead-up to his decision to take a knee.

In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police. The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, La. This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it. All I knew for sure is that I wanted it to be as respectful as possible.

Soon after, Reid joined Kaepernick in protesting during the national anthem. Now, with Kaepernick exiled from the league, a $100 million deal on the table, and no end in sight to the injustices both Reid and Jenkins abhor, it’s unclear if the protest movement they’ve helped lead together will carry on or be silenced.

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