The last men kneeling in the NFL are not household names, but they should be. Eric Reid. Marquise Goodwin. Eli Harold. Louis Murphy. Kenny Stills. Duane Brown. Olivier Vernon. These seven men have kept the spirit of agitation going. They've done so after the media lost interest and player enthusiasm began to wane. They kept going when nobody was watching, when the cameras turned away.
They've also done so at the risk of their livelihoods. How they pay their bills. How they feed their families. How they do what they love. The uncertainty over the NFL's recent policy changes only underscores the burden of their actions. The league's announcement in May that "all team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem" was the first policy change aimed at them. The Miami Dolphins' implementation of those changes was the second. After the NFLPA—the NFL's primary players advocacy organization—filed a grievance, arguing that the league had violated the collective bargaining agreement, the league balked, putting a temporary halt on the rule. Nobody really knows what will come next, but we finally know who is still standing up for what they believe in—and you should know that it's not just Colin Kaepernick.
Reid is only 26—which should be the prime of his career. But already he is feeling the ramifications of making his voice heard. He was the second player to kneel, alongside Kaepernick, his then-teammate. Now a free agent, Reid has struggled to find a new squad since his departure from the 49ers, just like Kap. And when Reid reportedly refused to say whether he would cease his protests during an interview with the Bengals, he was later not offered the position. (The team has refused to comment.) The NFLPA filed a grievance over the decision, calling the preemployment interview questions "improper." Reid keeps fighting, however; he has filed a collusion grievance against the NFL and each of its teams, alleging that his inability to land on a new squad is punishment for his activism. (Kap has filed a collusion grievance against the NFL that could blow up during the upcoming season.)
Reid might never find a team, but it's clear that he—and his dissenting colleagues—has long known the stakes. Kneeling always meant placing a target on their backs. That was the point, of course—to draw attention to themselves, to their causes. Not many among us can rightly say we'd risk our livelihoods to stand up for injustice. So it is important that we who believe in justice for all continue to honor the last men kneeling for the reality that they were willing to make themselves targets. They have managed to keep racial politics on the gridiron in a public way. They have channeled the rage that James Baldwin famously spoke of—"a rage almost all the time"—and they're doing it in the face of being cast as ungrateful, entitled millionaires who dared to "divide" the country with their actions.
What does it mean to divide America these days anyway? Division, for good or evil, is the foundation upon which this country stands. Division is one of our truest American principles. The United States is a country built on the division of the haves from the have-nots, the separation of who has privilege from who does not. What are racial lines if not an example of division?
This is the brilliance of what Eric Reid and the last men kneeling have accomplished with their continued protests: They have encouraged division. In doing so, they have drawn out—and illuminated—the nefarious forms of division in our society. The kind of division black people know all too well: division by way of mass incarceration, division by unequal treatment, division of families of color.
Which is to say that Reid and Co. have, by continuing to kneel, dared to hold up a mirror. They have dared to show us that the movement was never about one man. They have dared to show us that, so long as there are politically engaged players in the NFL, there will be someone who can show the world what black people endure. They have also shown us a path forward. "What we need now is numbers," Reid once wrote. The question is: Where will those numbers come from?
Jamilah Lemieux is a writer, cultural critic and consultant. She lives in Brooklyn.
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