Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told a group of team captains and leaders on Tuesday that they were free to join the growing protest movement across the NFL, but warned them there could be public backlash.
But as for backlash from the owner himself, Richardson assured his players he would support them if they chose to kneel during the national anthem, stay in the locker room or engage in other demonstrations to protest social injustice and racial inequality.
Some players feared there could be repercussions if they spoke out on social issues. Their anger and frustrations prompted the Tuesday meeting at Richardson’s SouthPark home.
Quarterback Cam Newton said Richardson assured the players they had his backing if they decided to join the hundreds of NFL players who protested last week in wake of President Donald Trump’s comments.
“A lot of what we talked about is confidential, but it was a very productive meeting,” Newton said Wednesday.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn did not attend the sit-down at Richardson’s house. But he said the message from players who were there was “nobody has to be nervous” to take a stand.
“Just letting everybody know if we commit to do something, he’s behind us,” Munnerlyn said. “But be aware for the backlash that you might get or the applause you might get.”
Defensive end Julius Peppers, a 16-year veteran and iconic figure on the team, was the only Panthers player to protest before Sunday’s game against New Orleans.
Peppers stayed in the locker room during the national anthem after what he called Trump’s attack on his brothers. During a rally in Alabama last week, Trump said owners should fire any “son of a bitch” player who refuses to stand for the anthem.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera addressed the situation during a meeting Saturday night at the team hotel, and Newton said he didn’t have time to process everything to make an informed decision on whether to protest.
“If we would have come together and spoke about it, I believe I would have done something. One thing I don’t want to do is make a (rash) decision just at the spur of the moment and say, ‘OK, I’m gonna do something,’” Newton said. “Where I stand, I want to think about it. I want to have reasoning and I feel like I want to take action in to it.”
But Munnerlyn said other players were concerned that Richardson’s strongly held beliefs that sports and politics shouldn’t mix might get them in trouble with the owner.
“You don’t want to try to put that bad taste in people’s mouth. You don’t know where he stands on that situation,” Munnerlyn said. “This is my job. That’s the guy who writes my checks. That’s how I feed my family. But at the same time, you want to be a man and you want to stand up for something.”
Munnerlyn said he appreciated Richardson’s message.
“You might be a little nervous and a little scared,” he said. “But (Richardson) is basically letting the guys know yesterday, you don’t have to be, man. ‘If you decide to do this, I’m behind you.’ It was great to hear, coming from your owner.”
Munnerlyn said the feeling was that Peppers’ standing in the organization gave him more security than other players in terms of speaking his mind.
“It’s Julius Peppers. If it was a Captain Munnerlyn or you put one of the rookies in that spot, you never know,” he said. “That’s what was our concern as players, like you never know. If it wasn’t Pep, if it was (special teams player) Jeremy Cash or somebody like that. But they cleared it up with our owner and talked to him.”
Peppers was among those who spoke during a players-only meeting before Wednesday’s practice. Newton said Peppers “gave his insight on the do’s, the don’ts and what to expect” for players who decide to protest.
Munnerlyn said Panthers players, who play next on Sunday against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., might have missed their window.
“Last Sunday was the Sunday when everybody was doing their thing for the national anthem,” he said.
But Newton, one of the most visible players in the league, left the door open to a possible protest.
“It was popular to do something this past Sunday. But it’s still an ongoing situation in this country,” Newton said. “If we don’t do something to show people – not that come to the stadium and watch us on Sunday – but this is for something bigger than that.
“This is for the people that don’t have the opportunity to come to the stadium, who just hear about it. ... We have to be that type of voice for those people who don’t have the outlets that we may have.”
Rivera echoed Newton’s comments, noting it’s been more than a year since former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling to shed light on social injustice and racism, and it’s time to act.
“Let’s start talking about what this really means and how we can do things as an organization, as a community and start bringing closure to this,” Rivera said. “And start showing we are truly working in a direction to correct those things that everybody’s protesting against.”