CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said players were given assurance from team owner Jerry Richardson that they’re free to protest and express their views without having to worry about any repercussions from him.
But players said Wednesday that Richardson did warn them about potential backlash from the public.
Newton, other team captains and a few selected players met with Richardson on Tuesday at his Charlotte home to express concerns they had about protesting while playing for Richardson’s organization.
"We just wanted to meet with Mr. Richardson and discuss certain things that were on our minds and hearts from different perspectives," Newton said.
"The people that were over there (at the meeting) come from different backgrounds and have different views. The one thing about it is we expressed those views and, more importantly, we agreed that everybody is entitled to their own thought process."
Newton said the details of the meeting will remain confidential, but called it productive.
"It was a step in the right direction for us as an organization," Newton said.
Richardson declined to be interviewed for this story.
It’s uncertain if the Panthers will stage any protest on Sunday during the national anthem when they visit the New England Patriots, according to Newton.
Last weekend hundreds of players around the league protested President Donald Trump’s commenting on Twitter that players who don’t stand for the national anthem should be fired. But only one Carolina player — defensive end Julius Peppers — made a stand. The 17-year veteran remained in the tunnel for the national anthem before Carolina’s game against the Saints.
Some players admitted they worried about how a protest would sit with Richardson.
"I was like man if I do sit down or kneel, or hold up a fist or stay in the locker room how it would look to the Big Cat?," Captain Munnerlyn said, referring to Richardson’s nickname. "That’s how I felt about the situation."
Richardson was the second-to-last NFL owner to issue a statement on Trump’s comments.
Even when he did on Monday, Richardson’s comments didn’t mention Trump, but said that "politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it."
While Richardson has never said publically that players can’t protest, there’s been an underlying current that they’re discouraged from doing anything that might reflect poorly on the organization.
Last year, Panthers safety Marcus Ball held up a fist during the national anthem after a police shooting in Charlotte of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, triggered rioting in the city.
Ball was the only Carolina player to protest the shooting during the national anthem. A few days later he was waived.
Safety Tre Boston later spoke out about the shooting. He remained with the team through the end of last year, but was not retained.
The Panthers never indicated those players being waived was because of their views, but Munnerlyn admitted that "was definitely in the back of my mind."
"I feel like I’m one of the guys, but at the same time you never know," Munnerlyn said. "It’s a business and you never know how people are feeling about that."
Munnerlyn said he feels much better now that the air has been cleared with Richardson.
"To get the owner to say man, hey it’s OK, you’re grown men," Munnerlyn said.
"I am a grown man. I am married and have three kids and I shouldn’t be scared of nothing. If I want to go out there and do anything I should be afraid because I have my own opinion on things."
Newton likes the idea that NFL players are stepping up for things they believe in.
"The message is unity for me — black, white, different minorities around America," Newton said.
"I want everybody to come together. We get nowhere if we separate. … We need to find some type of way to come together and make this situation better. Because where we’re going right now, it’s not healthy."