Panthers head coach Matt Rhule recognizes the problem. And by his own admission, as a white male, there are elements of racism that he will never fully understand. But during a 45-minute video conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, Rhule was clear in addressing what he believes must be done.
"So many of us know that overt racism is easy to spot. We see it and we know that it's wrong, we know that it's hateful, we say, 'Hey, I don't feel that way,'" Rhule said. "But what's gripping our country is systemic racism, and to me, it must be rooted out at every turn. That's all of our jobs — to admit that we do see color, we do see differences, to not sit there and say we don't see that. It's there and our society needs all of us — all of us at every turn — to root it out."
To that end, Rhule emphasized a commitment to making sure the words he's speaking now don't ring hollow in the years to come.
"What's clear to me is that history will look back at where we stood in this time," Rhule said. "I know my kids — when little Leona is in college 16 years from now or whatever it is — they'll look back at this time and this place and they'll want to know where their father stood, where their mother stood. Our grandkids will want to know where we stood in this time. That's a tremendous thing to think about, and I know what it means for me is I can't shy away from this moment."
As a father of three, Rhule has been addressing what's happening in the nation in his own house. He began his media session by saying he's been "heartbroken and saddened" about the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor. He's watched the videos circulating on social media with his children because he feels it's important for them to know what's going on.
But then they often ask the difficult question: Why?
"That's the hard thing about this — I can't answer why," Rhule said, adding if his kids ask, "'Why did this man die?' I can't answer that. But I think what's important with my kids is that they understand, hey, this is what our family believes."
And with so much time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rhule is trying to be particularly introspective about himself — both physically and mentally.
"A lot of things in my own personal life, I've been like, hey, I need to I need to change this, I need to improve that," Rhule said. "So I think just being honest with my kids right now is an important thing."
But obviously, Rhule's role as a head coach of a team made up of predominately African American players is different. He wants to listen. He wants to learn. So part of that meant changing plans for a team meeting last Friday, one that initially would've featured a comedian.
"I just addressed the team briefly and said I didn't feel like now was the time to get up there and start laughing. I thought it was important also to talk about the issues," Rhule said. "When I say talk with them, it's not my job to tell other people how to feel. I think what I've done is just said, 'Hey, this is what I'm going to do. This is how I feel. I want you guys all to know that I respect your voice.'
"I want to have a team full of men that knows their purpose in life is not just to play football."
As Rhule is listening, there is a clear message being presented to him not only by players but also from black coaches on Carolina's staff.
"I hear my guys saying that there's an issue and that there's a problem and that it's deeply, deeply, deeply affecting them," Rhule said.
The head coach noted one player recently shared that he fears letting his son get in the car just to go out.
"That's so hard just as a man, as a father to hear," Rhule said. "I don't know that I have that fear. So I think all of us — law enforcement, society — I think everyone would say that, 'Hey, this isn't right, that people have this fear. African American people, black people, have this fear that we don't have.'"
As for Rhule personally, he said he felt like the organization’s statement on Saturday was a first step, and he was proud to be associated with it. But Rhule referenced Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, who said in an interview with the L.A. Times that statements are not enough.
"I have so much respect for coach Lynn at the Chargers, and he said it yesterday so eloquently. 'I want to do more than just talk.' He was saying, 'I don't know what that is yet,' and that hit me," Rhule said. "So I think we're all — here in the organization — trying to figure out, what can we do? Because we can't look back in 10 years and say nothing great came from this — it can't happen."
Rhule recognizes there may be some discomfort in the process. But it's what needs to happen for significant growth and change.
"I know as a white man, sometimes it can be daunting to talk about issues like racism," Rhule said. "To be quite honest with you, we can sometimes be fearful that we can say the wrong thing and be seen in a way that we don't really feel, but we have to step up. We have to step up.
"I was telling someone today that I'm a big Bob Dylan fan. So many years ago, he sang so eloquently that, 'The times, they are a-changing.' But you can sit there and say, have they really? If they haven't changed, and it appears they haven't if you turn on the news, then it's time for a change. As white men, as white women, as white people, we might sometimes feel afraid to participate in the discussion, but it's time for us to do something."
Rhule knows he doesn't have all the answers, and he doesn't want to act like someone who does. But he is committed to making a difference.
"I do know that for me and my house and the things that I would like to see myself moving forward, I would look back at some time and my kids and my grandkids that say that my mom and my dad were on the right side of history," Rhule said.
"It's time for a change."