When the national anthem controversy erupted in 2016 and became an even bigger issue for the league in 2017, the NFL made one point very clear publicly: Players have the right to kneel or otherwise demonstrate during the national anthem. Privately (and at times publicly), some of the NFL’s teams have sent a very different message.
This duality has resulted in a collusion grievance from free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and a collusion grievance could (in theory) be the path that free-agent safety Eric Reid eventually chooses to follow.
Setting aside personal opinions on whether it’s proper or improper to use the anthem as a mechanism for protest, as a matter of labor and employment law, it’s proper for players to choose to protest during the anthem. Which means that, as a matter of labor and employment law, it’s not proper for the NFL or its teams to hold protesting during the anthem against any player who chooses to protest.
Which also means that there’s no legitimate reason whatsoever for any owner, G.M., or coach to interrogate a potential employee/player on whether he will or won’t kneel. Which means that, if it happens, it’s necessarily illegitimate — no different than asking potential employees about religious beliefs, national origin, and (for female employees, obviously) whether they are or plan to become pregnant.
Again, collusion is just a fancy word for coordination. If the teams have collectively decided, possibly with the league office as the conduit, that players who are most closely identified with kneeling (like Kaepernick and Reid) are bad for business despite the fact that kneeling can’t be prohibited, that’s a problem.
With the Bengals, a team that has routinely provided sanctuary to players with off-field issues, being the ones to pose clearly inappropriate questions to Reid in the apparent hope that he’ll commit clearly and unequivocally to not kneeling before the Bengals will offer him a contract, the problem becomes even more glaring.
With Kaepernick, the NFL’s teams had a chance to fix the problem before it got out of hand. With Reid, the window is still open. Once it closes, however, the NFL could end up with a second player claiming that the league and/or its teams are working in coordination to keep out of football one of the players who have been at the core of the issue of protests during the national anthem.