Panthers owner Jerry Richardson: 'Politicizing the game is damaging'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Over the weekend and for much of Monday, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was silent on President Donald Trump’s public criticism of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem and the ensuing reaction from players and ownership around the league.

Late Monday afternoon Richardson, who is the only NFL owner who has played in the league, issued the following statement:

“We are proud of the men we have on this football team. Our players have been active and impactful participants in making our community stronger. From the first time I stepped into an NFL locker room at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1959, I have lived and seen the sport’s ability to bring people of all backgrounds together. Politicizing the game is damaging and it takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it.’’

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it’s “very unfair to put so much on these young men" in terms of NFL players feeling they have to respond to the tweets of the president and other social issues.

At a rally on Friday and in a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump called for NFL owners to fire players who took a knee during the anthem. It sparked a league-wide reaction on Sunday that ranged from teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans staying in the locker room during the anthem to players locking arms on the sideline to players kneeling and locking arms.

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers stayed in the locker room while his teammates stood on the sideline, most with a hand over their heart.

“It was about me making a decision as a man on my two feet, and I wasn't going to ask somebody else to do anything with me,’’ Peppers said after the 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. “I just thought it was appropriate to stay in because we know what went on this week with the comments that were made by the president. I felt like he attacked our brothers, my brothers in the league, so I felt that it was appropriate to stand up with them and stay in the locker room.”

Rivera said he has a “tremendous amount of respect’’ for how Peppers handled the protest.

“He was trying to find a way to do it the right way,’’ Rivera said. “I think he was trying to make sure everybody understood he has a tremendous amount of respect for what the flag stands for, for the military personnel, for the first responders. I know he really battled with that. He did what he thought was right and supported them on that.’’

Rivera told his players Saturday night that, in his opinion, the best way to show unity was to “stand, look at the flag, be at attention, feet at 10 and 2, left hand down at our sides, right hand on our heart and we need to look at the flag and we need to listen to the national anthem.’’

He said on Sunday that was the last time he was going to talk about it, but on Monday he shared his concern over players being placed in the situation to make a statement.

“I’ll ask the question: How come you don’t see it in any other industry?’’ Rivera said. “How come we don’t see a newscaster just before he does the 5 o’clock report say excuse me and step over and take a knee for a second? Or a bank teller say before I cash your check let me take my knee?

“So much is being put on these young men. People say, ‘Well, it’s because they’re in the limelight.’ It doesn’t matter. If you’re going to take a stand, why don’t you take a stand?"

Safety Kurt Coleman didn’t take the delayed reaction by Richardson as a negative.

“I think this organization does support us in what we are able to do as players and what we do in the community,’’ he said.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a guest of Richardson’s for Sunday’s game against New Orleans, may have given a hint of why Richardson initially did not address the matter when he talked about how the 81-year-old team founder has been less involved in league issues.

“He's anxious to continue to do that, but he's just as anxious -- more anxious, in fact, based on my conversations with him -- to keep his focus on the Carolina Panthers,’’ said Tagliabue, who served as commissioner when Richardson founded the team in 1994. “He knows that he's got a good football team, and he wants it to become a great football team that's winning the Super Bowl and maybe not just once.

"That's his No. 1 priority, and I've told him, 'At a certain point in life, you can't have 10 priorities. You can have one or two. So make the Panthers your priority and let other people worry about what's going on in the league. You don't have to go to every meeting. You don't have to be involved in every issue.'"

But Tagliabue said he disagreed with Trump’s message, calling it “insulting and disgraceful.’’