The Carolina Panthers made a big move last week that may have gotten lost amid coverage of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But its significance did not go unnoticed by WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson.
My commentary last week was about the new Panthers’ owner, David Tepper, and how he defended NFL players who protested police shootings and inequality by kneeling during the national anthem. I wondered what would happen if Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton got hurt. Would the Panthers consider signing Colin Kaepernick, the leader of the protests? Would Tepper back up his words with action?
Well, he has answered that question. Sort of.
On Thursday, in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings, the Panthers announced that they had signed free-agent safety Eric Reid. Reid is just 26 and has played in a Pro Bowl. He’s clearly an NFL-caliber player. But he had found himself without a job this season, most likely because he and Kaepernick led the player protests when they were teammates on the San Francisco 49ers. Reid, like Kaepernick, had sued the NFL for colluding to keep him out of a job.
But now he has a job, thanks to an owner who is clearly willing to color outside the NFL’s lines. It’s unthinkable that Jerry Richardson, the Panthers’ original owner, would ever have signed a player who challenged the NFL’s power structure. Richardson was such a company man that the Panthers had the NFL shield painted on the 50-yard-line at Bank of America Stadium. Under Tepper, the Panthers have their own logo at midfield. That’s nothing special in and of itself – it’s what nearly every other NFL team does. But in Charlotte, it’s a sign that now things are different here.
Earlier in the year, Reid said he didn’t plan on kneeling during the anthem if he signed with a new team. He said he’d continue his protests in other ways. Stories about Reid’s signing said that nobody from the Panthers asked him about the protests. They just asked him football questions. Safety was a thin position for the Panthers going into the season, and injuries have made it thinner. If Reid plays as well as he did for the 49ers, the Panthers got a steal.
The question is, what will fans do when he takes the field? The Panthers, who were off yesterday, play a home game this Sunday against the New York Giants. My guess is that Reid will get a mixed reaction. Some people are deeply hurt and offended at the idea of someone protesting during the anthem. I have friends who feel that way, and I respect their feelings. My feeling, as I’ve said before, is that protesting is not un-American – in fact, this country was founded on the idea that free speech makes us better.
What I’m really interested in is the first moment when Reid makes a great play – an interception, maybe, or just a big tackle on third down. What happens if it becomes clear that he’s an asset to the team? I suspect some fans might be inclined to put aside their grievances. Maybe a few of them will think about what Reid risked for his convictions. And maybe one or two might come to believe that the Panthers’ new player – and their new owner – are not just good for our team, but good for our town.
Tommy Tomlinson’s commentaries appear every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. They represent his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to his commentaries in the comments below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.