CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is scheduled to meet Tuesday with a group of players upset that his strongly held beliefs do not allow them to join the growing protests around the NFL.
Those players are frustrated by restrictions implemented by Richardson and concerned about possible repercussions should they speak out on social issues, the Observer has learned.
Richardson was the next-to-last owner to weigh in with a statement after President Donald Trump's comments at a rally in Alabama last week that owners should fire players who refused to stand for the national anthem.
The statement Richardson released Monday praised his players as "active and impactful participants" in the community.
But he also made it clear he believes sports and politics should remain separate, so as not to damage the NFL.
"Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who played it," said Richardson, the only current owner who played in the league.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose father served 32 years in the Army including two tours of duty in Vietnam, also believes there are better ways to demonstrate than in the sports arena.
But Rivera also is trying to keep his locker room united and had a dialogue with his players on the topic during Monday's team meeting, according to sources.
The next step is having Richardson sit down with the players who want to express themselves but are concerned there may be ramifications for doing so, sources said.
The meeting is expected to take place Tuesday, with the hope of clearing the air before the team begins preparations for this week's game at New England.
Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling last season to shed light on social injustice and racism, and a handful of other players joined him across the league.
The protests became widespread following the comments by Trump, who urged NFL owners to get rid of any "son of a bitch" who doesn't stand for the anthem.
Players, as well as some coaches and owners, responded by linking arms, kneeling, sitting or remaining in the locker room during the anthem at every game last weekend.
At the Carolina-New Orleans game in Charlotte, veteran defensive end Julius Peppers remained in the locker room during the anthem. Every other Panthers player stood for the anthem, as Rivera had encouraged them to.
Peppers said his actions were not about disrespecting the military, flag, police or first responders, but a response to Trump's attack on Peppers' "brothers in the league."
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said last month he and some of his teammates have discussed the stances players have taken elsewhere. But Munnerlyn told the Observer on Sunday that there had not been much discussion about organizing a show of solidarity or protesting before the Saints game.
"We just went as business as usual," Munnerlyn said. "That's about it."
After the violent protests in Charlotte following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer last year, Panthers defensive back Marcus Ball raised his right hand during the anthem before a game against the Vikings, and safety Tre Boston spoke out about finding an appropriate way to protest discrimination.
Neither player remains with the team.
Rivera told his players before Sunday's game that the best way to show unity was to "stand, look at the flag and be at attention," while envisioning a country free from injustice, bigotry and prejudice.
The Panthers coach faces a difficult task, balancing the beliefs of his team's owner, his personal background, and the desires of the 53 men in his locker room, many of whom have strong feelings on social issues.
On Monday Rivera said he respected the manner in which Peppers, a 16-year veteran and iconic member of the team, protested.
"I think he was trying to find a way to do it the right way," Rivera said. "I think he was trying to make sure that everybody understood that he has a tremendous amount of respect for what the flag stands for, for the military personnel and for the first responders."
Some owners condemned Trump's remarks in their statements, while others joined players on the field for public protests or displays of unity. Dallas owner Jerry Jones knelt with Cowboys players before the anthem Monday night in Arizona.
But Richardson did not refer to Trump by name or mention the league-wide demonstrations.
Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said Carolina players feel supported in terms of their charitable work, which Richardson referenced in his statement. But Coleman said Panthers also want to shed light on the social issues dominating the headlines.
"I think the one thing that we know most is this community, this organization, supports everybody in this locker room and the things that we do in the community. It's amazing how many lives we've been able to touch and change," Coleman said.