Matt Rhule says Panthers free to express opinions, protest social injustice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule on Wednesday made it clear that his players should not be concerned about the consequences of participating in protests or expressing their opinion on social injustice as they were in 2017 under former owner Jerry Richardson.

"I want to have a team full of men who know their purpose in life is not just to play football,'' Rhule said during a 45-minute Zoom conference call that included a five-minute opening statement on what has happened in the country since George Floyd, a black man, was killed last week in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

"When I see them out joining protestors, I want them to know I support them with whatever they do."

In 2017, Carolina team captains met with Richardson to share concerns about possible consequences for joining protests -- such as kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.

Then-cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told a Charlotte radio station some players were "scared'' to express themselves because of the way it might look to Richardson after the owner put out a statement saying protests were "politicizing the game."

"We didn't do much as a team," Munnerlyn said at the time. "We wanted to do more, but we didn't know how it would come down, this being North Carolina. ... I think a lot of people were scared on our team."

Rhule applauded linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Tre Boston, linebacker Andre Smith and tight end Chris Manhertz, to name a few, for their participation in peaceful protests.

Rhule has addressed the team several times since Floyd's death, telling players they were free to express themselves. He canceled a comedian that was scheduled to address the team via a Zoom conference last Friday because he thought it was inappropriate.

"I didn't feel like now was the time to get up there and start laughing and those kind of things," Rhule said. "I thought it was important also to talk about the issues."

More than talk, Rhule felt it was important to listen.

"It's not my job to tell other people how to feel," Rhule said. "What I have done is [say], 'This is what I've done, this is how I feel; I want you guys all to know I respect your voices.'"

Rhule also applauded new team owner David Tepper and the organization for putting out a statement on Saturday that came from everyone, including players.

"The Carolina Panthers send our deepest condolences to the Floyd family and all who have been impacted by the cruel and senseless death of George Floyd," the team statement said. "The Floyd family has faced this tragedy with extraordinary grace and dignity. We must work together and take meaningful, sustained action to find solutions and enact change that is so desperately needed to end racial and social injustice. We are committed to doing our part.''

Rhule said Tepper "made sure'' the Player Impact Committee and players were engaged and involved

"That was a statement from all of us,'' Rhule said. "To talk about Mr. Floyd, to talk about his death, I felt was important."

The Player Impact Committee was formed in 2018 when Tepper purchased the team from Richardson, who sold amidst allegations of sexual and racial misconduct that ultimately resulted in a $2.75 million fine from the league after a lengthy investigation.

Also in 2018, the Panthers signed safety Eric Reid, the first player to join San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.

Many Carolina players at the time felt Reid, who with Kapernick filed a grievance against the NFL in which he claimed owners colluded not to sign him because of his protests, never would have been signed with Richardson as the owner.

Reid was released during the offseason by Rhule and general manager Marty Hurney as they rebuild. Rhule doesn't know how players will protest if and when the NFL season takes place this season, but made it clear he would not object.

He said it's time for everyone to "step up."

"As a white man, sometimes it can be daunting to talk about issues like racism," Rhule said. "And to be quite honest, sometimes we can be fearful so that if we say the wrong thing we can be seen in a way that we don't feel.

"I'm a big Bob Dylan fan. So many years ago, he sang so eloquently, 'Times, they are a changing.' But have they really? If they haven't changed, and it appears they haven't, then it's time for a change."

Rhule is taking the same approach with his family as he is with players. He's watched protests on the news with his three children -- ages 16, 7 and 4 -- so they are aware of what's going on. He watched with them the video of Floyd being held down by the knee of the police officer that has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

"Sixteen years from now, they'll look back at this time and want to know where their father stood and mother stood," Rhule said. "Our grandkids will want to know where we stood at this time. That's a tremendous thing to think about.

"I know what it means to me, is I can't shy away from this moment. I don't think any of us can shy away from this moment. It is time for fundamental change in our society. It's time for fundamental change in the way we do things."