Scott Fowler

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s tone-deaf statement will have repercussions

What Jerry Richardson wants most for his Carolina Panthers is a Super Bowl victory – his ultimate dream since he founded the team in 1995.

But what the 81-year-old owner of the Panthers said via a statement on Monday damaged that dream.

Richardson will be well-advised to listen more closely in the future to his employees. And he hopefully was conciliatory in Tuesday’s meeting with some of his more veteran players, some of whom The Observer’s Joseph Person reported “are frustrated by restrictions implemented by Richardson and concerned about possible repercussions should they speak out on social issues.”

Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said in a statement about that meeting Tuesday: “Mr. Richardson invited captains and other team leaders to his home this afternoon, as he often does. They discussed social issues affecting the League and solutions moving forward. As always, the conversations between Mr. Richardson and the players will remain private.”

Richardson’s “stick-to-sports” statement Monday – so in contrast to just about every other NFL club in regard to the sports protests that have cropped up all over America after President Donald Trump went hard after the NFL – was tone-deaf in a couple of ways.

But whether you are on Richardson’s side on this or on the frustrated players’ side, it’s clear that the Panthers are hurting themselves from a business standpoint.

When the next NFL free-agency period rolls around in the spring of 2018, you can bet that this week will be brought up by other teams trying to lure the same free agents as Carolina.

“You really want to play for Jerry Richardson?” they will say.

Some players will still say yes, of course. Money’s color is green, and it spends just as well whether you are black or white and whether you skip, stand or sit for the national anthem. But some players will wonder if Charlotte is really as welcoming a place as we all like to think it is.

I am not implying in the least here that Richardson, a former NFL player himself, is a racist. Far from it. I have seen a lot of first-hand evidence and know that he is not. But the part of his statement about “Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it” is wrong-headed.

Every Panthers game – and every NFL game of the hundreds I have been to – is a political experience. It’s naïve to suggest otherwise.

The games are draped in 100-yard American flags and criss-crossed with military flyovers. They are exercises in patriotism with occasional reminders of war on a weekly basis. On Sunday, for instance, the Panthers saluted current servicemen as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” played over the loudspeakers while the servicemen were shown on the big screens.

NASCAR does the same thing to an even greater extent, and all that is fine. I’m patriotic. I like the military. I stand for the national anthem. My dad served in the U.S. Army. I’ve never had a bad experience with a policeman, other than the one who correctly scared me half to death when he pulled me over for speeding in Spartanburg when I was 16.

But plenty of Americans have had very different experiences, especially African-Americans -- who comprise about 70 percent of NFL rosters. Many feel they do not have social equality and worry about what would happen if they got pulled over for speeding themselves. And to make it difficult for them to protest peacefully without the fear of repercussion is un-American in itself.

Richardson has his own beliefs, they are shared by many Americans and he is entitled to them. And, yes, he owns the team. He obviously doesn’t have to take a knee alongside his players like Dallas owner Jerry Jones did Monday night if he feels like that would be a fake gesture.

Richardson is more than an employer in this issue, though, and this is bigger than a “management vs. labor” dispute. The Panthers’ owner should let the players protest if they want to – with no implied or actual fear or repercussions -- as long as no one is getting hurt.

Not only does that make sense from a business perspective for Richardson to ease up on the reins, it makes sense from a human perspective, too.

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