The newest member of the good old boys club fooled them all.
Eric Reid will play this season, and for that everyone who believes in fair play should be happy. After all, the only thing keeping Reid out of the NFL before Thursday was that he stood — make that kneeled — with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco.
Now he’s a Carolina Panther, and for that he can thank new Carolina owner David Tepper. It was Tepper who signed off on a deal for the free agent safety, something 31 other NFL owners — and certainly not former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson — had any intention of doing.
It was carefully labeled as a decision, and in some ways it was. The Panthers lost safety Da’Norris Searcy to injury last week and Reid is expected to start when Carolina returns from a bye week to play the New York Giants.
But this was also a statement that the old guard may be changing. And it could be Tepper, the hedge fund mogul who bought the team for $2.2 billion in the offseason, leading the way.
“It shouldn’t have taken this long, a person with his talent. We all understand the reason why,” said Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith, who lobbied his team to sign Reid earlier in the week. “This says a lot about the men and the leaders here. They’re making a football decision, but Eric is also a great man and leader.”
Yes, it’s only a one-year contract. And, no, it doesn’t mean Kaepernick should brush up on his throwing in case another team calls.
But Tepper clearly took a stand by signing Reid to a one-year deal, even at the same time Reid continues his collusion case against the league for not being signed earlier.
And that was far different than Jerry Jones ranting and raving about what he might do to any Dallas players who would kneel during the anthem. Far different than the silence from most other teams when asked why they didn’t sign Reid or Kaepernick.
But maybe we should have expected it all along.
Tepper showed early he wasn’t going to march lockstep with his other billionaire owners on the issue, saying in a CNBC interview earlier this month that it was “dead wrong” to accuse NFL players of being unpatriotic if they knelt during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
During the interview, Tepper also recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a patriotic act, ending it with an emphasis on the words “and justice for all.”
In this case it’s justice for one. Reid is one of the better safeties in football and is in his physical prime. To deprive him of a chance to play because he exercised the right every American has to protest was simply wrong.
And, really, Tepper and the Panthers aren’t taking a big chance. The same fans who threaten to boycott the NFL for player protests will be on their feet cheering Reid if he can bring stability to the secondary of the 2-1 Panthers.
Still, while Reid gets some form of justice, the man who started it all waits for the phone to ring.
Kaepernick has a new Nike ad and contract, and the movement he started still looms large over the league. But he doesn’t have a job playing football, and could do little more than congratulate Reid in a tweet on his signing.
“He was the 1ST person 2 kneel alongside me,” Kaepernick tweeted. “Eric is a social justice warrior, continues to support his family. and communities in need.”
The NFL still finds itself in a quandary about what to do with protests during the anthem. A handful of players took a knee last weekend, though the league has been lucky recently in being spared the Twitter wrath of President Donald Trump, who has used the issue to rally his base.
One of those kneeling was Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has been vocal all season about his reason for protesting and his view that the NFL needs to employ both Reid and Kaepernick if there is going to be any resolution of the issue.
“He’s good enough to play,” Stills said. “He deserves to play.”
He could play, even back in San Francisco, where the 49ers could surely use an experienced backup in the wake of Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending injury. But whether Kaepernick will play depends on how enlightened NFL owners are becoming — and remember, this isn’t a very socially enlightened bunch.
Signing Reid was a necessary first step, but Reid was the easier of the two.
It was Kaepernick who started everything, Kaepernick who remains the face of the protest.
And Kaepernick who is still out of a job.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg