Why were the Carolina Panthers one of only two NFL teams not to respond Sunday to President Trump’s harsh and vulgar words about kneeling athletes?
There could be plenty of reasons.
It could be that the team agreed with the president’s objections to kneeling for the national anthem. The Panthers, like a lot of pro sports teams, have long expressed pride in the flag and the military at games, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera was clear Sunday that he thought players should stand for the anthem, left hand at their side, right hand on their heart. It’s very possible that his boss, owner Jerry Richardson, felt the same way.
Maybe the team’s silence was a business decision, a case of Richardson not wanting to upset a fan base he thinks might disagree with players kneeling. Or it could be that Richardson, like a lot of fans, believes that politics and sports don’t mix, and that football games are a place to get away from the rest of the world, not tangled up in it.
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All of which is Richardson’s prerogative, of course. He’s the owner of a business – a very significant one in Charlotte. He understands the weight of his words, and he has long used them sparingly, anyway. You can bet there are a lot of fans who agreed with the team not speaking up Sunday.
But for those who wish that sports and politics would just stay separate, well, the president took care of that last week. His “son of a bitch” attack on NFL players turned a long-simmering story into something so big that staying quiet became a statement, too. It certainly seemed to for the Panthers.
Is it a choice that also could have consequences? The Panthers are located in a city that’s largely progressive, in a state that’s very much split ideologically. Just as a team statement Sunday might have annoyed some Panthers fans, not making one runs the risk of annoying others. Odds are, though, that either choice would be forgiven and forgotten soon enough.
But Sunday wasn’t so much about fans. The NFL teams that did issue statements recognized that more than anyone, the players needed to hear something. The president attacked their employees for having concerns so deep that they felt compelled to express them publicly and symbolically. Owners, in varying ways, stood up for those players on Sunday.
The Panthers chose not to. In fact, Rivera took a stance that – while heartfelt – sent a signal that the bosses felt players should stay quiet in the wake of the president’s remarks.
That’s a legitimate message to send to your employees, for any or all of the reasons above. But Panthers’ players surely noticed later Sunday that other teams and other owners sent a different message than the one in Charlotte. It’s the kind of thing that can linger or flare up when other things aren’t going well.
Or maybe it doesn’t make a difference at all. Maybe the players know in a dozen other ways why this is a good franchise to be a part of, and why Jerry Richardson is a good man to play for. But on Sunday, NFL players linked arms on sidelines and put hands on shoulders, and some owners came down to the field to join them. On one extraordinary day, the league and its teams looked united, and the Carolina Panthers looked anything but.