Fowler: Panthers’ Eric Reid won’t stop kneeling during the anthem. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”

Fowler: Panthers’ Eric Reid won’t stop kneeling during the anthem. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”
Panthers safety Eric Reid, left, takes a knee during the National Anthem during a 2018 game. (Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - What Eric Reid will do on the sideline before each Carolina Panthers game this season won’t change.

What will change, he hopes, is how well he plays when the music stops and the hitting starts.

Reid, 27, is one of the NFL’s most polarizing players because he kneels every week during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and social injustice in America. Reid plans to continue to take a knee this season, too, as he continues to drive his NFL career on two parallel tracks – trying to make a difference on and off the field.

“If a day comes that I feel like we’ve addressed those issues, and our people aren’t being discriminated against or being killed over traffic violations, then I’ll decide it’s time to stop protesting,” Reid told the Observer. “I haven’t seen that happen.”

In fact, Reid said, he believes America is getting a little worse for African-Americans.

“It feels like we’re going backwards,” Reid said. “You’d like to think we’re past certain things, the way we treat people. I thought we were at a time where you love your neighbor as yourself. But as I’ve studied history -- it hasn’t repeated itself necessarily, but it’s dressed a little different and is acting the same.”

Facing a shortage of safeties, the Panthers signed Reid three games into last season to a one-year deal. He knelt each week during the anthem without incident — no Panthers players joined his protest, but no one asked him to stop.

And, to quote Panthers owner David Tepper’s comments to NFL Films, “the world didn’t end” after Reid protested during the anthem for the first time in a Carolina uniform.

‘HE’S GOT TREMENDOUS ATHLETICISM’

Reid caught onto the defensive system quickly enough — and the Panthers were desperate enough — that they started him immediately. “I just had to learn as many plays as I could during the bye week,” Reid said.

It was far from ideal. Reid ended up starting 13 games in a row and posted solid but unspectacular stats for a team that went 5-8 with him on the field. He was sixth on the team in tackles and had one sack and one interception.

“All in all, taking into account I wasn’t here for the beginning of the season or training camp, I think I did fairly well,” Reid said.

The Panthers thought so, too. The team struggled on defense during a seven-game losing streak, but they considered Reid much more of an asset than a liability. In February, before he could hit the free-agent market, the Panthers signed him to a new three-year, $22-million contract.

Reid and Colin Kaepernick, his close friend and former teammate with the San Francisco 49ers, settled their collusion lawsuit against the NFL a few days later for an undisclosed sum.

So this season in theory should be much quieter for Reid. He’s no longer suing the league, he’s no longer looking for a job and he’s no longer the newest guy on the Panthers’ block.

“It’s nice to get comfortable with the plays before the season starts,” he said.

The Panthers’ new 3-4 schemes seem familiar to him, too — the 49ers also played a 3-4 for much of Reid’s five years there.

“I expect him to take another step in the system,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Reid. “He’s a very good football player and he’s got tremendous athleticism. He’s the kind of guy who I think can really help solidify your unit.”

PAY THE COLLEGE PLAYERS?

Of course, Reid isn’t the type to get too comfortable. When he sees something in the world that strikes him as wrong, he speaks out. Reid criticized his old college recently when LSU unveiled an opulent new set of player lockers that looked like they had come straight off a spaceship. Like many former college athletes, Reid believes that collegiate players should be paid.

“The locker room when I was at LSU seven years ago was better than the current one in Carolina,” Reid tweeted. “But there’s no money to compensate these young men for the revenue they bring to the school.”

Replying to another comment generated by that tweet, Reid wrote: “I’ve given 10 percent of my earnings since entering the league to various causes. My point is that instead of $28 million to get a bed in lockers when the prior locker room was just fine, that $ could have instead been used to: 1) give folks scholarships or 2) put $ in your pocket.”

That’s Reid. He thinks about a lot more than his responsibilities in a two-deep zone, and he makes others think, too.

‘WE WERE ROBBED OF THAT’

When I asked Reid where he had spent most of this summer, his answer surprised me: South Africa.

“My wife is from there,” Reid said, “so we went to visit her family. I’ve been the past couple of years. To me, it’s very powerful. Obviously I descend from Africa …. (I’ve done) my ancestry and know which parts of Africa I descend from.

“I think that’s something that we as black people in this country have been robbed of,” Reid continued. “I compare it to my brother’s wife, who is Hispanic. She was born in America but her parents are from Honduras. She speaks Spanish. She knows the culture.

“But most black people, we were robbed of that. We don’t know our heritage. We don’t know what we descend from. We don’t speak a native language. We don’t know which part of the country we come from a lot of times. I don’t know past my great-grandfather — that’s lost. And we’ll never get it back. So being in Africa is powerful.”

Reid had originally planned to move his family — he and his wife have two young daughters — to Charlotte in the offseason. But they instead opted to keep the family home in New Jersey and for Reid to rent a place alone in Charlotte, allowing the girls more stability. Reid’s primary job for the next six months will be to concentrate on football and help the Panthers rebound from a disappointing 2018.

But if you know Reid, you know there will be more to it than just football. As always, he will balance his work with the Panthers with his work toward social justice.

“We’ve got to keep fighting,” Reid said. “Got to keep agitating. Got to keep making sure that we put pressure on the people who make the laws, and the decisions, in this country.”