Right or wrong, fair or unfair, sports and racial politics collided at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday – a day after an officer-involved shooting in Charlotte spawned violent protests that included injuries to 16 policemen, fires set in the middle of I-85 and looting a Wal-Mart.
The Carolina Panthers still practiced and the team issued its mandatory injury report.
But football questions were largely put on hold as reporters sought reaction to the killing of Keith Lamont Scott in the University City area – about 15 minutes north of the Panthers’ offices.
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It was an interesting day.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera made it clear he didn’t think it was fair his players were dragged into the discussion – and then he jumped in himself.
More importantly, Panthers quarterback and reigning league MVP Cam Newton – who has been criticized for avoiding conversations on race – decried the spate of police violence across the country.
Newton said he didn’t know enough about Tuesday’s shooting. But he referenced the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer Randall Kerrick.
Kerrick’s case ended in a mistrial last year.
“It could’ve happened in Atlanta. It could’ve happened in Los Angeles. It doesn’t matter. It’s embarrassing for things to just keep happening,” Newton said.
“And from what I do know, we had an incident that happened in 2013 that had something to do with the police. And it went to jury and whatever, got washed away in time.
“My big thing is always holding people accountable, no matter what the race is, no matter what the gender is. We all have to hold each other accountable.”
This was the most expansive and animated as Newton has been on race in five-plus NFL seasons.
At a January news conference in Charlotte the week before Super Bowl 50, Newton said: “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.”
But he didn’t want to touch the topic at the Super Bowl and further distanced himself this past summer by telling GQ: “I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not. ... We’re beyond that. As a nation.”
Newton was measured with his comments Wednesday. He balanced remarks about the senselessness of police brutality with an allusion to black-on-black crime.
Newton also – correctly – described the lose-lose situation he’s in when he wades into race and politics.
“I’m in a position now where if I say something, it’s going to be critiqued and if I don’t say something, ‘Oh, you fake or you flaw,’” he said. “I’m a firm believer of justice. I’m a firm believer of doing the right thing. And I can’t repeat it enough of just holding people accountable.”
Newton said he respects the stance taken by 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality.
“But I also can make a stand in my own right,” Newton said. “That’s why I have a foundation and I’ve been trying to do any and everything to bring the city of Charlotte or wherever that I’m around and can impact it in a positive way. And I hoping people will see that and do the same thing.”
There are plenty of people – Rivera included – who question why it’s important for athletes to take any kind of political stand.
Rivera said that’s what elected officials are supposed to do – in theory.
“There needs to be some conversation. But the people that should be conversing about it aren’t. Are they? Have they reached across party lines? Have they reached across the Senate and the House and talked about it? Have you heard anything come from them?” Rivera said. “No, we haven’t, have we?”
Rivera then alluded to the latest chapter in the HB2 controversy, with Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts saying the city would not repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance that led to HB2.
“The governor’s trying to get something changed and the city won’t talk to him,” Rivera said. “I probably shouldn’t have said that, but I did.”
Newton could have chosen to say nothing Wednesday on political- and racial-related topics. He didn’t.
What he said won’t be enough for some critics. For others, it will be too much.
But Newton doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum.
He’s a pitch-man for some of America’s most well-known companies and works for an organization and owner that don’t like players or employees rocking the boat.
But Newton says he feels like he can speak freely.
“When you’re given that type of platform, people are going to listen. And it’s not about people using it in a wrong way or not having the opportunity to speak how they feel,” Newton said.
“Coach Gus Malzahn of Auburn used to tell me, ‘Use your influence in a positive way because people are looking at you regardless – of the bad and the good.’”
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