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Jenkins vs. Reid: United in the struggle but torn apart by tactics

Just like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, different paths to activism

Revolutions in the age of social media are rarely fought in private.

Disputes are ugly, public affairs waged across multiple platforms: in chat rooms, at White House press briefings, and now in the middle of a football field.

On Sunday, Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers confronted the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins at midfield after the ceremonial coin toss.

Reid never threw a punch. He didn’t have to — the sheer bold act of confronting Jenkins at midfield before the game was punch enough. The last thing Jenkins might have expected was to see Reid, who broke pregame protocol to confront Jenkins, in public, before millions.

They exchanged words, tempers flared and Reid, who knelt with Colin Kaepernick when they both played for San Francisco, had to be restrained.

This was dramatic theater, and bonus coverage for fans who thought they were coming to simply watch a football game. What unfolded was raw political theater on a football field.

Last year, the Players Coalition, which Jenkins co-founded, and Reid initially supported, agreed to accept an offer of nearly $90 million from NFL owners to fund various social initiatives. What the owners wanted desperately was for players to stop protesting during the national anthem.

This was dramatic theater, and bonus coverage for fans who thought they were coming to simply watch a football game. What unfolded was raw political theater on a football field.

Whether he meant it or not, Jenkins compromised Reid and Kaepernick when the Players Coalition accepted nearly $90 million from NFL owners. Jenkins then announced, publicly, that he was finished protesting during the national anthem.

Reid was unemployed until two weeks ago, and Kaepernick continues to be unemployed.

Christopher Bracey is vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of law at George Washington University. He is also the author of Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism, from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice. Bracey said Reid’s use of the term “sellout” was accurate.

“Reid is entirely correct to assert that Jenkins attempted to ‘sell’ the position initiated by he and Kap [kneeling during the anthem] to the NFL in exchange for concessions that Kap presumably had no involvement in negotiating,” Bracey said.

“This is a classic attempted co-opting of a movement. It is also a tragic reflection of the politics of a racial co-opting of what we all thought was a bygone era.”

The NFL payout would come out to about $2.8 million per team, a pittance to pay to get potentially volatile black NFL players to fall in line. A small price to keep the White House off the NFL’s back, to reassure a predominantly white fan base that politics would be removed from the stadium experience.

The pent-up anger Reid expressed Sunday was justified. He wanted the world to know that he felt Jenkins had betrayed a cause.

After Sunday’s game, Reid doubled down and called Jenkins a sellout.

Jenkins attempted to take the high road, saying he was happy Reid was back in the league, that he was not going to bad-mouth someone he knew was committed to a cause, “especially another black man.”

My initial thought to that last thought was an old-school reaction: Black folks shouldn’t publicly fight with black folks.

Problem is, that ship officially sailed decades ago. In 1903, the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, which took on the conservatism of Booker T. Washington and laid a foundation for radical blackness.

My initial thought was an old-school reaction: Black folks shouldn’t publicly fight with black folks.

Marcus Garvey subsequently took on Du Bois, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. challenged each other, Shirley Chisholm challenged black male political hegemony, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson have famously and publicly collided.

What made Sunday’s confrontation between Reid and Jenkins notable is that it was the first time I remember a clash of ideology around black liberation breaking out on an NFL playing field.

Reid believes passionately that commitment to a cause requires unwavering commitment. He believes it should be public: Stake out your position and compel your opponent to be equally passionate about staking out his. Let the world know where you stand. Create a dialogue.

Jenkins initially raised his fist in protest. He stopped after receiving what his critics called hush money from the NFL. And Jenkins did exactly that. He hushed. In a statement issued last year, Jenkins said he took offense at being called a sellout for taking the contribution: “For the Players Coalition and I, it was never about the money or having our voices bought. To hear people call me or anyone else a sellout is insulting. It has always been, and will always be, about lifting the voices of the people and the work of those that fight for them.”

That may not make Jenkins a sellout, but the optics make him look co-opted and compromised.

In the long run, these internecine disagreements will make the whole stronger.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the victory stand demonstration during the Mexico City Games by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Smith and Carlos have enjoyed a consistently odd 51-year relationship, dating to 1967 when they became Speed City teammates at San Jose State University. Carlos once told me he and Smith loved each other but didn’t necessarily like each other.

About 10 years ago, I was with them in New York City when simmering tensions came to a head over claims and counterclaims each man had made about the other. Smith released a book, Silent Gesture, in which he said Carlos needed him more than he needed Carlos. Carlos claimed he let Smith win the gold medal in the 200 meters in Mexico City.

In the intervening years, they have made peace, realizing that commercially, politically and athletically they are joined forever at the hip. They were together last week in San Jose, California, appearing at a dinner and on a panel, posing for photographs and basking in the glow of creating one of the most dramatic moments in Olympic history.

They have separate lines of clothes with logos that reflect one, not both, of them on the victory stand.

That may not make Jenkins a sellout, but the optics make him look co-opted and compromised.

Last week during an interview, I asked Smith about his and Carlos’ relationship. “I love John and respect him,” he said. “We’re different people.

“Sure, John Carlos and Tommie Smith are joined forever by that action. He likes certain things. I like certain things. We have our own separate ways of doing certain things, just that simple.”

What advice would he give to younger activist athletes like Jenkins and Reid who find themselves at odds with one another.

“You don’t have to have dinner together. You don’t have to have that to accomplish a goal,” Smith said. “We don’t even have to think the same way. Just have a plan and be ready to sacrifice, when you’re fighting against something. The status quo has another agenda.”

The dispute between Reid and Jenkins, Kaepernick and the National Football League is far from over.

On Monday, an arbitrator denied Reid’s collusion claim against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Kaepernick’s collusion case is ongoing. The issues Jenkins and Reid care about — police violence, injustice, debilitating mass incarceration — are front and center, as Reid was front and center last Sunday. Even as he plays in Carolina, Reid continues to kneel and protest. He remains unbowed. That’s a good thing.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.