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49ers’ Eric Reid knows activism could cost him his job, fights anyway

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Eric Reid announced he had removed himself from a group of players working with the NFL for social justice on Wednesday. He has bigger goals in mind. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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SANTA CLARA — Eric Reid is one of the best safeties in football. He also is a leading voice for activist NFL players. He was the first 49ers teammate to join Colin Kaepernick in protesting police brutality and systemic racism last season, and the ensuing struggle isn’t relenting.

Reid isn’t afraid to fight for what he thinks is right. When asked on Wednesday if he’s concerned he’ll get the same treatment as Kaepernick, Reid said he knew it was a possibility he might be unemployed at this time next year.

“I knew what I signed up for when I started doing this,” he said. “I know it’s a possibility, but I think it’s the right thing to do. When I look back on my life, when I look back on my career, I want to feel confident that I did the right thing.”

On Wednesday, Reid removed himself from the Players Coalition, a group working with owners to find a solution for the issues that led players to peacefully demonstrate during the national anthem.

A series of events led to Reid withdrawing.  When Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins and former 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin communicated directly with the league in recent weeks without the coalition’s consent — effectively silencing other members of the group — Reid and others were dismayed.

“The players coalition was supposed to be formed as a group that represents NFL Athletes who have been silently protesting social injustices and racism. However, Malcolm and Anquan can no longer speak on our behalf as we don’t believe the coalition’s beliefs are in our best interest as a whole,” former Stanford and current Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas posted on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

Reid said before practice on Wednesday that he voiced his concerns to Jenkins several times, to no avail, and was also irked when Jenkins removed Kaepernick from the group.

The last straw, as Reid put it, was when Jenkins reached out to members of the coalition Wednesday morning about ceasing the protests as a trade-off with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who, in turn, would donate $100 million to causes focused on racial and social inequalities.

“[Jenkins] had a conversation with the NFL, we agreed that multiple people would be on all conversations with the NFL, it wouldn’t just be him solely. So he didn’t stand by his word on that,” Reid said. “At no point did we ever communicate that an agreement with the NFL would end the protest.”

And, Reid shouldn’t compromise on this. After the coalition met with owners in October, 49ers CEO Jed York said — in no uncertain terms — that the goal of this cooperation wasn’t to find an acceptable transaction.

“The owners were very clear in our meeting with players that this is not a trade,” York said. “This is not, ‘We’re going to do this for you and quid pro quo you stand up.’ That was not there.”

Now, the Niners safety is exploring his own avenues to affect change. He’s taken the very first steps toward establishing a nonprofit that would address the issues near to his heart, and he won’t be actively seeking help from the NFL.

Reid also isn’t convinced the league’s current motives are pure.

“I give kudos to the NFL for wanting to step up and help us with regards to systemic oppression. I question their intent behind it,” he said. “I personally think they just want the protest to end because it’s affecting their bottom line.”

Whether or not Goodell and the league deliver on that $100 million promise remains to be seen; the plan needs approval from NFL owners.

Reid believes the Players Coalition can do a lot of good; he just won’t be a part of it under its current structure. And Jenkins, for his part, is OK with that while disagreeing with Reid’s assessment.

“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,” Jenkins told reporters on Wednesday. “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 [Reid and Thomas] 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.”

An unrestricted free agent after this season, Reid’s future participation in the NFL — and in player protests — is uncertain. And Kaepernick’s ongoing free agency nightmare, despite being a starting-caliber player, has reinforced the truth that NFL owners despise dissidents, especially those who challenge the way the league’s mostly conservative fanbase perceives the world.

And if he’s not in the league next year, Reid said he’ll explore all methods of recourse available to him — strongly hinting that he would also sue owners like Kaepernick.

“My focus is going to be to finish this season, and if I enter free agency and I’m not on a team next year, then I’ll weigh all my options — legally or what have you,” he said. “We’ll just see how it goes.”

The 49ers have established themselves as a leading organization in terms of social justice. How players are allowed to exercise their rights to express themselves would’ve been interpreted far differently if Kaepernick played for any other team in the league. And on Wednesday, head coach Kyle Shanahan offered a vote of confidence in Reid when asked if he sees the safety in his long-term plans for the organization.

“I definitely would like him in it,” the first-year coach said. “Like I said for all our free agents, there’s a business aspect to that. We do have some depth [at safety], but Eric Reid is a very good player.

“I like how he handles himself, I respect the person,” Shanahan continued. “We’ll see how this offseason goes, but based off the player and person, he’s definitely a guy we’d like back here.”

It’s in the Niners’ best interest that he returns because young teams need leaders like Eric Reid, both on and off the field.

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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