Three players from the Panthers' Player Impact Committee addressed the media through a virtual press conference on Thursday, and their collective message echoed what head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday: Now is the time to make changes to stem systemic racism throughout the country.
Linebacker Andre Smith, tight end Chris Manhertz, and defensive end Stephen Weatherly are all black, and have been involved in combating racial injustice in their respective communities. Smith and Manhertz attended Monday's justice walk in Charlotte, with Smith calling the event "liberating."
"Going out there for me, it was just like food for my soul," Smith said. "I felt like I could tweet all these things, I can repost all these things. But actually going out there and doing something physically was just a totally different experience, and I would recommend everyone do it."
A significant part of the reason why the players feel comfortable participating in these protests and giving voice to their feelings on social media is that the NFL climate surrounding the issues has changed. And Smith, Manhertz, and Weatherly each expressed how much support they feel they've received from Panthers leadership over the last week.
"David Tepper, the team owner, called me and was just telling me how much he supports us, and he wants us to stay safe, and how important it was for us to keep this movement going even after all the hype dies down," Smith said. "I really appreciate that. For him, one, just calling me — the team owner calling me is pretty cool. But (I have an) appreciation for his understanding — again, just knowing that it is a tough time.
"And Coach Rhule, he did a great job as well. He gave us the freedom. He said post however you feel, protest peacefully, be safe. So as far as the staff goes, I couldn't be any more thankful for how they've handled this."
Manhertz similarly appreciated the call he received.
"Mr. Tepper called me as well a few days ago and pretty much offered support, and pretty much empathized and acknowledged that there's a lot of things that need to be fixed in the society that we live in," Manhertz said. "Having the owner of the organization personally call you and having conversation about it, I think that speaks volumes to the person he is and the organization that the Panthers is as well."
It's a stark contrast from a few years ago. Smith admitted back then, he felt like posting certain things in support of social justice could get him in trouble. Weatherly went further on the topic, saying at some points, he felt like he had to choose between either being black or being a football player. And that feeling only changed last year for him as a member of the Vikings, when team ownership — led by Zygi Wilf — expressed a willingness to stand behind players for social justice causes they deemed important.
And now that he's with the Panthers, Weatherly feels that same support.
"I don't have to choose anymore — I can be both (black and a football player)," he said. "I can go out and get these numbers (on the field) and do what I can to help bring back a championship, but then also express my grievances as a black man. Neither of those two should interfere with the other, and it feels good and allows me to play free or allows me to play less stressed — which in turn makes me a better football player."
Having played four seasons for Minnesota, Weatherly feels what has been going on in Minneapolis in the aftermath of George Floyd's death on a personal level. As Weatherly noted Thursday, Philando Castille was fatally shot months after Weatherly was drafted in 2016 — meaning Castille and Floyd's deaths in a way mark the beginning and end of Weatherly's tenure in Minnesota.
But the protests that happened then clearly did not bring about enough change.
"That moment four years ago — it was taking a knee, and then we just took it and we went the complete wrong way with it. We didn't open up dialogue. We didn't have discussion. We kind of swept under the rug and tried to go back to our normal every day," Weatherly said.
Given what's transpired with the recent deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor, Manhertz said watching the news these days can become overwhelming.
"In times like these, especially with social media and the noise, you kind of have to filter for yourself — for your mental health," Manhertz said. "In my eyes, it's not good to constantly watch negative things — it's always gonna brew negative thoughts in a way. So it's definitely overwhelming, but it's one of those things that is definitely going to be written down in the history books. We're going to be looking back at this moment decades down the line and time will tell if what we're doing is going to be conducive for the big picture or not."
To that end, Smith, Manhertz, and Weatherly each said that what is important now is for the protests and words everyone is expressing to turn into significant action as a means of change. Much of that starts with having meaningful conversations with friends, family, and peers.
"Sometimes you have to do certain things outside of your comfort zone to get the attention of others to even try to have these conversations," Manhertz said. "Now, you might have some people that don't want to have the conversation altogether, and that's outside of your control. But for those that want to learn and want to try to understand, it's important and it certainly helps."
But if this moment is to lead to real change, the momentum generated by the current protests across the nation has to be sustained. Weatherly's perspective on that is partially informed by his grandmother, Dianna Johnson, who holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, and worked for former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson on issues related to criminal justice reform.
"We voice our outrage and when it's not heard, and protests happen, and then something is done, and then we're pacified," Weatherly said. "And anyone who has a kid knows, pacifiers aren't solutions, right? It's a temporary fix. So that's why she doesn't think that anything has changed, really, in regards to long-term solutions, something that won't come up in a year won't come up in five years."
But for Weatherly, his grandmother, Manhertz, and Smith, there is reason to be hopeful.
"I told my grandma about the calls and the meetings we have here with the Carolina Panthers and what we have in the works, and she seems generally hopeful, just like me, so I'm excited," Weatherly said.
For now, one tangible step for reform the Player Impact Committee is taking is working on voter registration.
"I was so happy the Panthers brought up voter registration. There's a lot of elections going on like now, in the coming weeks," Weatherly said. "It's about getting people registered and to know that the decisions you make in the booth can affect long-term legislation. So I feel like that's what's next, to put in place templates to help the next six months to a year and then elect the people that can make a positive impact for years to come."
And as the players continue to work on the relevant causes of social justice, Smith set out the players' message to the public in a clear and concise way.
"I really want the people to know that we as athletes, we as Panthers, as professional athletes — we are with you," Smith said. "I want them to know that as a professional athlete, me — Andre Smith — I completely understand the situation. I'm right there along with you fighting the good fight, and I'm not afraid to use my voice or my platform to speak out."