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Don’t lose track of the issues Colin Kaepernick risked his career to illuminate

Eric Reid: ‘What we have to do now is keep reinforcing what the protest is really about’

Toward the end of an interview this month with The Undefeated about the new civil rights movement and the role of NFL players in the fight for racial equality, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid revisited the topic that angers him most: the smearing of Colin Kaepernick.

Reid, a leader in the NFL players’ fight for social justice, was the first player to join Kaepernick, his then-San Francisco teammate, last season in kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color in the United States. Since he took a knee alongside Kaepernick, Reid has watched those opposed to their efforts reframe the protest as being disrespectful to military personnel, the flag and the country in general. It has never been about those things, Reid said.

“People fought and died for our country. They did that so we would have the right to do what we did: speak out against things that are wrong and try to change them,” Reid said. “It hurts that the message has been totally twisted and that Colin, who helped get us [the movement] going for all the right reasons, and who has put up his own money and done so much to help people different ways, is being called a radical. They’re saying he’s un-American and worse. What we have to do now is keep reinforcing what the protest is really about. We have to get back to that.”

Now more than ever.

After President Donald Trump further stoked division about the protests during his speech aimed at activist-players last week, it’s time to refocus on explaining the message, players on the front lines of the nonviolent battle said. With Kaepernick still on the outside of the game looking in — primarily because of NFL owners’ opposition to his political views, many civil rights activists and players believe — it’s up to the other leaders of the movement to keep pushing from within.

But here’s the question: Will they be aided by a wave of new reinforcements?

After the stirring show of unity in response to Trump’s comments, there was a feeling among some civil rights activists and activist-players that a sea change had occurred. In the season’s first two weeks, relatively few players had protested compared with the same span in 2016. Obviously, things changed in Week 3.

Trump’s comments galvanized support for the unprecedented leaguewide protests. Many players sat during the anthem. Many players knelt. Many stayed in the locker room. On some teams, players stood together arm in arm with owners, head coaches and team executives. All of the demonstrations combined — every team did something — presented a powerful image of togetherness.

After the games, however, some players quickly signaled that, for them, the protests were a one-week deal. Oakland Raiders left tackle Donald Penn, who played a key role in the Raiders’ demonstration before facing the Washington Redskins, struck a somewhat apologetic tone about his belief that “something had to be said. I respect the military. I respect our flag. I have the utmost respect. This all had to do with President Trump’s comments. This is the only reason why we did that.”

Barring something unforeseen, Penn plans to stand for the anthem the rest of the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who remained in the locker room during the anthem before their previous game against the Chicago Bears — left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate who served tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, stood in the tunnel at Soldier Field with his hand over his heart — intend to be on the field and stand for the anthem Sunday on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. For many players, it seems, the demonstrations were more about Trump’s comments than the issues that Kaepernick risked his career to illuminate.

It’s not quite that simple, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. Marshall, the third player last season not to stand during the anthem after Kaepernick and Reid, believes that “no one should be judged for whether or not they stand. But it’s not just about standing.”

“More and more guys have been getting active in their communities and getting educated about different issues. There are a lot of ways to make a difference. But there are also more guys who will decide to” kneel.

Count Miami Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas among the converts.

Because of Trump’s words, Thomas is one of the new players to get in the game. The seven-year veteran had not previously taken a knee. After hearing Trump’s assault on the message of protesters, and what protesters are striving to accomplish, Thomas decided it was time for him to act too.

“If you want to express yourself, and you want to stand for something, I believe that you should be able to do that,” Thomas said. “Before I’m a football player I’m a man, and that is above any profession we all have.”

The civil rights movement has benefited from Kaepernick’s efforts, activists will tell you. Apparently, Sports Illustrated must not have noticed. The magazine’s cover did not include the player most responsible for igniting a still-evolving national discussion about race and policing issues.

The omission stunned Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. The two-time NBA MVP, one of 10 people whose images appear on the cover of the Oct. 2 issue, thought the exclusion of Kaepernick “was terrible, just kind of capitalizing on the hoopla and the media and all that nonsense,” he told reporters. “The real people that are understanding exactly what’s been going on and who’s really been active and vocal, truly making a difference — you don’t have Kaepernick front and center on that, something’s wrong.”

Reid, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett are players who have built on the work Kaepernick started. Despite others’ efforts to change the protest narrative, Reid, Jenkins and Bennett never have lost track of why they’re in it.

“I have been committed [to] doing work in the community and trying to bring our communities together to promote unity. There is nothing that anyone is going to say that will deter us from doing that,” Jenkins said, alluding to Trump’s diatribe. “You were able to see a lot of the guys leaguewide sending out messages with the message of support and unity in the face of divide and hate.”

Those who protest during the anthem will tell you that one of the main issues fueling their passion continues to be the disproportionately negative interactions that people of color have with law enforcement. For a league that never misses a branding opportunity, last weekend’s optics were great. But let’s not forget: Seven NFL owners each donated $1 million for Trump’s inaugural festivities. And it’s unclear how the league will respond to a memo from Bennett, Jenkins, Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith and former receiver Anquan Boldin that essentially challenged the commissioner’s office to get off the bench and finally partner with the players in a battle of right vs. wrong. Jenkins, for one, is eager for an answer from the game’s top decision-makers.

“It’s due time for people to use their voices they have. Players stood on their own platforms and have taken the brunt of it this whole year,” Jenkins said. “As people continue to push for divide and division, it is important for those in the league that are teammates to be able to support those that are really trying to make an impact on communities.”

The movement isn’t about disrespect for the government or its institutions. It’s about trying to make them all better.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.