When Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance with the NFL in October alleging that teams and the league had colluded to prevent his employment, his grievance letter focused in part on President Donald Trump’s role in encouraging owners to suppress the protest movement Kaepernick instigated. On Wednesday, Kaepernick’s former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid filed his own grievance with the league, one that makes a similar claim of retaliation. Although the grievance is not public due to the confidentiality around arbitration proceedings between the league and players, a source familiar with the situation says Reid’s grievance likely focuses on Trump’s role in promoting the alleged collusion against him.
The 26-year-old Reid, who played with the 49ers from 2013 to 2017 and is now an unrestricted free agent, has been Kaepernick’s closest ally in the league, and was the first player to kneel alongside the quarterback in 2016. Reid has reportedly discussed a possible deal with just one team, the Cincinnati Bengals. During that meeting, the team’s owner Mike Brown reportedly told Reid he planned to prohibit his players from kneeling during the national anthem and asked the player for his response. According to Pro Football Talk, “Reid, caught off guard by the line of questioning, wasn’t willing to make a commitment on the spot.” The Bengals have not extended him a contract offer.
In an interview last year, Reid told me that he “would be a hypocrite to not speak up and use my platform for people who were facing oppression in this country.” Like Kaepernick, he will have ample evidence to point to as he highlights Trump’s statements in his case against the league. Trump is known to have had private conversations with powerful NFL owners, some of which have touched on the player protests. One of those owners, Jerry Jones, has already reportedly been deposed by Kaepernick’s legal team. (On Wednesday, Kaepernick’s attorney Mark Geragos confirmed to CNN that he is also representing Reid.) Trump’s comments describing any player who protests as a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired” will also likely play a role in Reid’s grievance. Around the time Trump made those remarks, he used Twitter to suggest that tax benefits for the NFL should be taken away as long as the protests continue.
If the owners are worried about angering Trump, it would be logical for them to exile the two players—Kaepernick and Reid—who’ve been the most visible instigators of the league’s social justice protests. Even more evidence has emerged in recent weeks that the owners fear Trump’s ability to rile up the league’s fan base. The New York Times recently revealed direct quotations from a private meeting between a group of players and owners in October 2017. “The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, describing Trump’s provocations about kneeling players as “the elephant in the room.” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, meanwhile, said he was concerned about being “baited” by Trump, while Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula said, “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again. We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
It would also make sense for the grievance to focus on the fact that Trump has suggested he is responsible for players being blacklisted. Last year—one day after a meeting with Kraft—Trump boasted about published reports that “NFL owners don’t want to pick [Kaepernick] up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” Last month, while discussing standing for the anthem, Trump seemed to cryptically refer to Kaepernick—and perhaps Reid—when he told rallygoers in Michigan that “if others honored our flag, they’d be a lot better off, wouldn’t they?” Similarly, while speaking at an Ohio factory in February, Trump seemed to take credit for the lack of protesting players at the Super Bowl. “We’ve made a lot of improvement, haven’t we?” Trump said. “That’s a big improvement.”
The grievance is also likely to allege that Trump’s intervention inspired owners to move in concert to prohibit players from kneeling and to take adverse employment actions against kneeling players. The notion here isn’t that Trump specifically instructed owners to banish the likes of Kaepernick and Reid. Rather, as the collusion claim need only prove an implicit agreement among owners, it will likely argue that Trump’s public and private pressure campaign terrified the owners, leading them to come to an implicit or explicit agreement to blackball certain players.
As in Kaepernick’s ongoing claim, Reid should have the opportunity to depose league and team executives and seek documents related to his case. Reid will also have additional evidence that has emerged since Kaepernick filed his grievance. Late last year, the NFL and a group of players brokered a deal for the league to finance a reported $89 million program to fund social justice causes. Reid was initially part of that group of players, but he told Slate in November that he stepped away when he became aware that the NFL was conveying to players that they’d be expected to stop protesting in exchange for receiving the money. Reid said last year that the league-funded program was a “charade” that, he was told at the time, would shift funds from other NFL public service campaigns, like breast cancer awareness and military service initiatives. The NFL has since said the program would “supplement, and not replace” other initiatives.
Reid’s claim to Slate last year that the owners expect players to stop protesting would seem to be supported by reports regarding his meeting with the Bengals, in which he was asked whether he would stop kneeling. Reid’s experience mirrors that of Kaepernick, who was scheduled to meet with the Seattle Seahawks last month but saw that meeting abruptly canceled after he refused to commit to ending his protest.
The blackballing of Reid is arguably—from a pure football perspective—more egregious than that of Kaepernick. According to the NFL’s own website, Reid was the league’s 25th-most-valuable free agent this offseason and the second-most-valuable safety. The vast majority of players above and below him in the NFL.com rankings have already been signed. Meanwhile, analysts have pointed to statistics that show the 26-year-old former Pro Bowler has been one of the most consistent performers at his position in recent years and had an impressive 2017 campaign.
Kaepernick and Reid are mostly standing alone in their battle with the league over its apparent attempt to suppress player speech. With some notable exceptions, their fellow NFL players have been largely quiet about the league’s efforts to silence the former 49ers. The NFL Players Association has also kept mum on the topic, deferring in public statements to Kaepernick’s legal team. On Wednesday, though, the NFLPA released a statement saying, “Our union supports Eric and we are considering other legal options to pursue.”