Panthers fans still loyal but questions linger over National Anthem
Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson met with a group of captains and other team leaders at his home Tuesday amid mounting frustrations among some players who feel Richardson’s strongly held beliefs do not allow them to join the growing protests around the NFL.
Team spokesman Steven Drummond said Richardson invited the players to his SouthPark home Tuesday afternoon to discuss “social issues affecting the league and solutions moving forward.”
Drummond would not divulge details of the meeting. The Panthers did not respond to an interview request for Richardson.
The Observer first reported the meeting, which was prompted by increasing tensions among players frustrated by restrictions implemented by Richardson and concerned about possible repercussions should they speak out on social issues, according to sources.
Richardson was the next-to-last owner to weigh in with a statement after President Donald Trump’s comments at a rally in Alabama last week that owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.
The Panthers’ captains are a mix of white and black players, a group that includes quarterback Cam Newton, the 2015 league MVP, and Pro Bowl linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. The other captains are tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil and safety Kurt Coleman.
Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, the lone Panthers player to demonstrate before Sunday’s game against New Orleans, attended Tuesday’s meeting, SI.com’s Jonathan Jones reported.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told Charlotte’s WFNZ-AM on Tuesday that Panthers players wanted to do more in the way of protest, but were scared to.
“We didn’t do much as a team. I think a lot of people were disappointed in that,” Munnerlyn said. “I think we wanted to do more, but we didn’t know how it would come down this being North Carolina, this being a military state. At the same time, I think a lot of people were scared on our team.”
Munnerlyn said he was waiting on Richardson to release a statement following Trump’s comments, which Richardson did Monday.
In the statement, Richardson praised his players as “active and impactful participants” in the community.
But he also made it clear he believes sports and politics should remain separate, so as not to damage the NFL.
“Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who played it,” said Richardson, the only current owner who played in the league.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose father served 32 years in the Army including two tours of duty in Vietnam, also believes there are better ways to demonstrate than in the sports arena.
But Rivera also is trying to keep his locker room united and had a dialogue with his players on the topic during Monday’s team meeting, according to sources.
The next step was having Richardson sit down with the players who want to express themselves but are concerned there may be ramifications for doing so, sources said.
During his weekly appearance on WFNZ on Tuesday, Munnerlyn said players wanted to express their feelings but “didn’t want to piss the wrong person off.”
“I think people were kind of scared to express that because how it would have made it look to the Big Cat,” Munnerlyn added, referring to Richardson by his nickname.
Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling last season to shed light on social injustice and racism, and a handful of other players joined him across the league.
The protests became widespread following the comments by Trump, who urged NFL owners to get rid of any “son of a bitch” who doesn’t stand for the anthem.
Players, as well as some coaches and owners, responded by linking arms, kneeling, sitting or remaining in the locker room during the anthem at every game last weekend.
At the Carolina-New Orleans game in Charlotte, Peppers remained in the locker room during the anthem. Every other Panthers player stood for the anthem, as Rivera had encouraged them to.
Peppers said his actions were not about disrespecting the military, flag, police or first responders, but a response to Trump’s attack on Peppers’ “brothers in the league.”
After the violent protests in Charlotte following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer last year, Panthers defensive back Marcus Ball raised his right hand during the anthem before a game against the Vikings, and safety Tre Boston spoke out about finding an appropriate way to protest discrimination.
Neither player remains with the team.
Rivera told his players before Sunday’s game that the best way to show unity was to “stand, look at the flag and be at attention,” while envisioning a country free of injustice, bigotry and prejudice.
The Panthers coach faces a difficult task: balancing the beliefs of his team’s owner, his personal background, and the desires of the 53 men in his locker room, many of whom have strong feelings on social issues.
On Monday, Rivera said he respected the manner in which Peppers, a 16-year veteran and iconic member of the team, protested.
“I think he was trying to find a way to do it the right way,” Rivera said. “I think he was trying to make sure that everybody understood that he has a tremendous amount of respect for what the flag stands for, for the military personnel and for the first responders.”
Some owners condemned Trump’s remarks in their statements, while others joined players on the field for public protests or displays of unity. Dallas owner Jerry Jones knelt with Cowboys players before the anthem Monday night in Arizona.
But Richardson did not refer to Trump by name or mention the league-wide demonstrations.
Coleman has said Carolina players feel supported in terms of their charitable work, which Richardson referenced in his statement. But Coleman said Panthers also want to shed light on the social issues dominating the headlines.
“I think the one thing that we know most is this community, this organization, supports everybody in this locker room and the things that we do in the community. It’s amazing how many lives we’ve been able to touch and change,” Coleman said Monday.
“We’re trying to change lives over here. And I think this is another subject we want to continue to bring to light and help change for the better.”