With social justice on the minds of many, how will the Panthers respond?

 By Zach Goins

August 28, 2020

On Wednesday evening, the sports world screeched to a halt for the second time this year, but this stoppage wasn’t coronavirus-related. 

Shortly before the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks were set to tip off Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, the players refused to take the court in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

The strike quickly spread across the NBA, and other sports leagues like the WNBA, MLS and MLB, as well as individual athletes, followed suit in the following days. 

The Panthers evening practice Wednesday went ahead as scheduled after head coach Matt Rhule polled the players on whether or not they wanted to continue, but now the team is setting its sights on a way to bring about more impactful change.

“I just want to say this: For me as a white American male to hear from some of our players about the numbness, the rage, the perpetual anger, the fear– I think all of us have to take a minute and think about what’s going on in our country and listen,” Rhule said after Wednesday’s practice. “I listened today. But it’s time to take action as well. I’ll choose to stand with our players as we move forward and do something really impactful.”

What exactly that impact will be remains to be seen, but make no doubt, the Panthers are having important discussions on how to make it happen– and everyone is included.

“With something like this, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been in the NFL– it’s a human thing,” defensive lineman Zach Kerr said Friday on a Zoom press conference.

Kerr said he shares Rhule’s sentiment when it comes to wanting to see drastic changes, but that he doesn’t want it to simply come in the form of gestures from leagues and athletes. Instead, he said people should turn their attention to those with the power to actually institute change.

“This isn’t a sports issue. This isn’t an athletic issue. This is an issue that humans need to fix,” Kerr said. “There are people in place that set these laws and set this systematic oppression that we’ve been dealing with for years, hundreds of years. It’s hard to undo years and years of different systematic oppression, but action needs to start.”

One NFL team that’s leading the way is the Baltimore Ravens, who didn’t hold anything back on Thursday night when the team released one of the most detailed and impressive plans of action yet by a sports organization. In a post on Twitter, the team directly acknowledged the impacts of racism and slavery on America, demanded specific legislation to be passed, and called for the arrest of the police officers who shot James Blake, as well as those who murdered Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on Friday said that he hadn’t read the Ravens’ statement personally, but that he had heard of its impact and was hopeful the Panthers would be able to put together something similar and take it beyond social media.

“I don’t want to be that guy who’s just posting on social media and three days from now I’m not even concerned with it because I’ve done my part,” Bridgewater explained on Zoom. “We talked about action, and I tweeted a couple weeks ago that having a platform means nothing if action doesn’t follow. So, for us here, we were just trying to find a way to put a plan of action to really dive deeper into what’s going on.”

For Bridgewater– and many Black athletes– their status on the field doesn’t protect them once they step off of it.

“Outside of the jersey, outside of the uniforms, we’re human beings in society,” Bridgewater said. “I think what has to happen is, we can’t get lost in these lifestyles of being Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday, but you know, any other day I’m Theodore Bridgewater.”

Kerr had similar feelings.

“We have to remember that we are athletes in our jobs, and outside of our jobs, we are humans,” Kerr said. “When it comes to social injustice, when it comes to different things or protesting and stuff like that, what people have got to realize is that when I’m done playing football, I’m still going to be a Black man.”

One way the Panthers are hoping to help people take action is through the team’s “Your Vote Counts” initiative. In early August, the Panthers rolled out a new campaign to help everyone in the Carolinas realize their votes matter on Election Day.

According to the team’s announcement, just six out of ten eligible voters casted ballots across North and South Carolina in the 2016 election, and even less participated in the 2018 midterms. Linebacker Shaq Thompson was one of those who chose to sit out, but not anymore. 

“I never thought my vote counted and I never even thought of registering,” Thompson explained Monday on Zoom. “Just seeing this world separate and seeing the racial stuff that has happened and just being a part of this world. It’s just like, we don’t need that. We need more people to come together, more people to share love, show love.”

Thompson, who just registered to vote Monday, said he hopes the Panthers’ initiative helps others like himself realize the role they have to play in America’s democracy. 

“Me, growing up, I wasn’t taught to vote. I wasn’t taught that my vote counts. So, just hearing it, understanding like, ‘Oh, your vote does matter,’ it makes a difference,” Thompson said. “It makes me want to reach out to guys back in my community and tell them to vote and get a whole pamphlet out and try to teach them and understand your vote does matter.”

In addition to the Panthers’ push to register voters across the Carolinas, Bank of America Stadium, as well as the Hornets’ Spectrum Center, will serve as early voting sites. 

Whatever else the Panthers choose to do will likely reveal itself in the coming days, but it’s clear the players and the organization as a whole are taking their time to make sure it’s meaningful. 

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