The owner of the Carolina Panthers warned his team this week that they may face backlash if they decide to join a growing protest movement across the NFL. But many of the team’s longtime fans say they will support the players no matter how they decide to take action on Sunday.
When the Observer reached out to nearly two dozen season-ticket holders this week via email, some were instead critical of owner Jerry Richardson, 81, who was the second-to-last owner to respond to remarks last week from President Donald Trump. During a rally in Alabama, he called on NFL team owners to fire any “son of a bitch” player who refused to stand for the national anthem.
Trump’s words brought fresh attention to a movement started last year by former San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
Season ticket holders Emmie Alexander and her husband have been Panthers permanent seat license owners since 1993, joining other PSL holders whose initial investment helped pay for the Panthers stadium.
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Alexander said Richardson’s initial response “came out as tone deaf,” although she praised him for later voicing support for players who protest.
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“In the ‘60s, we told black people to be patient, not to rush things, and to ‘stay in their place.’ Isn’t telling players not to mix sports and politics the same thing? In other words, you can protest but you have to do it at a time and place that it doesn’t make white people uncomfortable,” Alexander said.
After several team captains and leaders met with Richardson this week to express their concern that his strongly held beliefs wouldn’t allow them to join the protests, Richardson assured the group they’re free to participate without fear of punishment – whether it’s by kneeling, staying in the locker room or engaging in some other kind of demonstration.
“Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it,” Richardson said in a statement, which many said was vague.
Of course, not every PSL owner supports the players’ protesting. Jason Underwood, an original PSL owner, said football games aren’t the place for social activism. “Protests have their time and place. Not during a song that all Americans should hold sacred,” Underwood said.
Morris Miller, an Air Force veteran and PSL owner, similarly said he wants players to focus on football, not protesting.
“I (am) disgusted with the disregard for our flag. After Sunday’s blowout, I believe that the entire team took a ‘knee’ for the entire game! Players should focus on playing football, something they apparently lost the ability to do,” Morris said of the Panthers, who fell to the New Orleans Saints 34-13 Sunday.
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Following Trump’s comments, dozens of NFL players took part in some kind of protest before their games. Defensive end Julius Peppers was the only Panthers player to participate: The 16-year NFL veteran stayed in the locker room during the national anthem after what he called Trump’s attack on his brothers.
According to a Seton Hall Sports Poll this week, 84 percent of Americans say they support the players’ right to protest, although nearly half say they should find a different way to express their political opinions. Sixteen percent say players should be dropped from teams if they refuse to stand for the national anthem.
“The time is upon us to do something to bring people closer together,” quarterback Cam Newton told reporters this week. The Panthers play the New England Patriots on Sunday.
PSL owners have played a crucial role in the team’s history. In 1993, the Panthers sold $150 million in PSLs to help finance the cost of their stadium. The PSL granted its holder the right to a particular seat at the stadium so long as the buyer keeps getting season tickets. Today, PSL holders own about 62,000 seats, making up almost 90 percent of Bank of America Stadium.
Here’s what some other PSL owners had to say. (None of the fans contacted by the Observer said they agree with Trump’s assertion that owners should fire players who protest.)
Original PSL owner Terry McFadden told the Observer in an email that he has “no problem” with players’ peaceful demonstration during the national anthem.
“The POTUS is justified in voicing his opinion, but he was way out of line with his antagonizing tweets. The game will surely outlive him,” McFadden said.
Mary Williams and her husband have been PSL holders since 1993. Williams knelt during the national anthem at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday before the Saints game. And she said she is now considering selling her tickets because of Richardson’s response.
“I am a mother of two sons and when I hear an ignorant person like Trump refer to my sons as ‘sons of bitches,’ I take offense to that. I would like to hear what Richardson would do if anyone referred to his mother as (one),” Williams said.
PSL owner Sue Taylor said she thinks everyone should stand for the national anthem, and that too much attention has been paid to the protests at a time when the country should be dealing with other problems, such as assisting hurricane victims.
Still, Taylor said she doesn’t think anyone should be fired for protesting.
“Sometimes I think certain players just want the spotlight when they kneel, etc., during the anthem. But we all enjoy certain freedoms in the U.S., and no one should take that away,” she said.
Don King said he was fine with Richardson’s response. But, King added: “I am a firm believer in the First Amendment and don’t think we should be making exceptions for sporting events!”
Michael Bradshaw, another original PSL owner, said he sees a strong parallel between Vietnam War protests and professional athletes’ protests. Bradshaw also said he has no problem with peaceful protests.
“The protests by professional athletes are not protesting the flag, but a protest against hate, bigotry, racism, etc. The president is playing to his base for political reasons, and not for the good of our country,” Bradshaw said.
Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton discusses freedom of speech, how protests are not meant to offend the US flag, and the possibility of other team members participating in a future protest.