CHARLOTTE — After NBA players on Wednesday decided to strike, protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Panthers head coach Matt Rhule wanted to make sure his players were OK with continuing their scheduled activities. So he approached a few team leaders.
Ultimately, players wanted to practice. As linebacker Tahir Whitehead explained, the team agrees with the NBA players' actions, but the Panthers felt they needed to craft a plan specifically for them.
"We have a bunch of leaders on this team, a bunch of guys that believe in doing the right thing, and we're going to do the right thing," Whitehead said late Wednesday night. "We're going to make sure we put our heads together to make sure it's well thought out, and we're actually doing something to make change, make an impact in our community."
Still, Whitehead admitted it was "extremely hard" to focus on football.
"A lot of us, we have children. We have younger cousins, siblings, family members, and we know that it can easily be one of them at any point in time. It can easily be one of us," Whitehead said. "I think as hard as it is to focus on it, when you step in this building, you understand there's a bunch of men in this building that feel the same way that you feel. But also understand that you have to compartmentalize and go out there. And that's our outlet at the end of the day, so it's not that we go out there, we take the field, and nothing else matters.
"It's there in the back of our mind. But at the same time, it's our chance to kind of go out there and take a step back, enjoy the time and that camaraderie with one another. But then as soon as we step off, we're right back diving into it like, what are we going to do? How are we going to accomplish change?"
Whitehead was the only player to address the media following Wednesday's practice, but he surely wasn't the only one feeling an emotional response to Blake's shooting. The linebacker has four sons ranging from four months to 12 years old, and he's already explaining to them how to conduct yourself as a Black man when encountering police.
"I think it's just downright wrong to have to have that conversation with your children because you feel like they're targeted when they go out into society and in this country and in this world," Whitehead said.
What will the Panthers' player response look like? Whitehead isn't sure yet, but discussions are sure to continue.
"At the end of the day, if we feel like there's no justice, then there's no telling how we as players and the country feel," Whitehead said.
But he also knows the message can't just come from Carolina's Black players. That's one of the benefits of having a larger roster compared to NBA teams.
"Even though in the NFL, the Black players are the majority, we need the help of our white teammates because it's going to be them who then go on to their community and make sure they're hitting the message home," Whitehead said. "It's not until it becomes as equally important to them as it is to us collectively that we really go out there, and we get this message and our point across."
Rhule said he continues to listen and learn when Carolina's Black players and staff share how they feel every time an incident occurs.
"Even though I think I understand to a degree, as some of the players told me, the perpetual rage, and the perpetual anger, and fear, and disenfranchisement and all these things these guys are feeling — it manifests itself differently in different ways," Rhule said. "But it's not right that the guys feel this way, that guys are forced to feel this way."
That's why Rhule offered to support whatever actions his players decide to take.
"We have to make a change," Rhule said. "I think the Carolina Panthers are completely committed to that."
"We need to use our platform, use our voice to make sure everyone understands that this needs to end."
View photos from Wednesday night's practice in the stadium under the lights.