This was going to be an article about football. About how the Panthers are planning to play a tough Minnesota Vikings defense about which players need to step up for Carolina to win the game. But it’s hard not to get distracted by things going on that are much bigger than football.
Charlotte, North Carolina is a dangerous place right now. The United States’ most recent hotbed for violent protests in response to police killing a black man has become so dangerous that a State of Emergency has been declared. Stores have been gutted of their merchandise. Gunshots fired. What started as a peaceful protest quickly and unfortunately turned violent. It’s just another instance of a reoccurring trend in America. Whatever stance you have on these issues, there is no denying the severity of this situation. It has unquestionably forced itself into the forefront of our national debates and into everyday conversations. They are important and concerning, and they’re happening right outside Bank of America Stadium.
And yet the Panthers week three matchup against the Minnesota Vikings is still in Charlotte.
Why is it that the Carolina Panthers have decided to keep their home game in the Queen City in a time of unrest? There is certainly a persuasive argument for having the game moved to another stadium, away from the possible threat of violence, protecting fans and players alike. Having an NFL game in the middle of a city whose bonds between people and authority are already so fragile may seem like the perfect situation for tensions to break and for more violence to occur. Moving the game would give Charlotte more time to recover from the protests and riots without having a huge, centralized venue that could potentially become a vehicle for more activity. As we speak, Charlotte citizens are living in fear that their property, businesses, and possibly their lives are in danger.
The debate on these issues still rages on, encapsulating the entire country and catching the attention of millions across the globe. Tourists visiting America from other countries, like the Bahamas (a country whose majority is of African decent), have been issued travel warnings from their governments, advising their citizens to be aware about the possible dangers of racial profiling. “Black Lives Matter” has become the touchiest and most polarizing phrase in the country, sparking pride and support in some and rage and frustration in others. There is no denying the urgency of these matters. Now, Charlotte has become the latest center of this national debate.
Some NFL players have become very involved in speaking out and raising awareness about their opinions. Colin Kaepernick’s stance has been the most publicized with his controversial decision to kneel during the national anthem a magnet for differing opinions. Other players have joined Kaepernick in his protest. Fellow teammate Eric Reid now kneels with the quarterback during the Star Spangled Banner, along with others across the league, including Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster. This decision has prompted heavy criticism from others around the sport, with legendary Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka the latest to voice his disgust towards those kneeling. Two years ago, members of the St. Louis Rams trotted from the tunnel during pre game with their hands raised in the air, a response to the nearby shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Other players, like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, have been relatively quiet on the issue, perhaps fearful of creating unwanted attention and ridicule for speaking their opinions. Football and the debate of racial inequality in America have long been intertwined, but one is much more important than the other.
Yet despite all the violence, controversy and tragedy, the Panthers will play their game, as scheduled, in Charlotte, like nothing ever happened. At first glance, this may seem ignorant. Looking deeper into it, however shows us the true beauty of sports.
There is something sports can do like nothing else. As clichéd as it might sound, sports have the ability to unify and heal during times of struggle. At the game this Sunday, Panthers fans will crowd into Bank of America Stadium, standing shoulder to shoulder, and cheer for their team together. They will, at least momentarily, forget about the poignant state of their town and instead focus on the Panthers. Fans with differing opinions in a city divided will stand together during the National Anthem, cheer together when the Panthers score, and sing Sweet Caroline together if the Panthers win. Sunday’s game will be a much needed release for the citizens of Charlotte, even if it lasts just three hours.
Moving the game from the Queen City would be admitting defeat from the violence and protests that have divided a nation. The game affords Charlotte the chance to unite and rise above, to show that the fractures in the community these issues have caused are not too deep. Not only is the game a symbol of unity, but an opportunity to restore a sense of normalcy to a city that desperately needs it.
With all of this in mind, let’s preview important things to look for in Carolina’s week three contest against the Minnesota Vikings.
Ron Rivera- The Panthers head coach has a reputation of being defensive minded, so he’ll surely appreciate the defensive unit Minnesota is bringing to town. Fresh off a victory in which they allowed the explosive Green Bay Packers offense only 14 points, the Vikings D is carrying momentum into this next game. They’re fast at the linebacker position and very strong up front, so Rivera and staff will have to put together a good game plan to beat this tough defense. Despite all of their injuries (Adrian Peterson and Shariff Floyd are among those inactive for Sunday), the Panthers know this is not a team to overlook. The true test Rivera had was this practice week where he was tasked with keeping the players focused on the game and not what has been happening around Charlotte. He’ll ask his players to channel their emotions in a productive way and play with their hearts on their sleeves. Rivera knows what this game means, and has surely made his players aware as well. Carolina will have to play with high energy to beat this defense and if they allow their emotions to get the best of them they’ll find themselves suffering a costly upset at the hands of the Vikings.
Kelvin Benjamin- In his first two games back from an ACL tear, the Panthers #1 receiver has been nothing short of spectacular. Look for him to continue this trend against the Vikings as he’ll be matched up against either Trae Waynes or Terrance Newman, two cornerbacks who struggled the week prior. The secondary is the only weakness of this Vikings defense and Cam Newton will look to exploit this by targeting the Florida State product often. Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings top cornerback, has missed the last two games with injury and is questionable for this game. If he does return expect Newton to throw his way when he’s covering Benjamin until he proves that he’s recovered fully from his injury.
Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne- With starting running back Jonathan Stewart out with a hamstring injury, the duo of Whittaker and Artis-Payne will be asked to handle the rushing duties. Carolina has rushed for 100 yards in 34 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. Getting the running game going is imperative for the Panthers offense, and these two backs will be expected to continue this trend. Newton and fullback Mike Tolbert will help some, but the majority of the carries will go to this duo. Artis-Payne will be the starter, and Whittaker, who had a career high 100 yards rushing last week, will be the change-of-pace and third down back. Carolina will likely rush for 100 yards again, but strong performance from one or both of the fill-in backs will be a critical key to a Panthers victory.
Kony Ealy- For the second week in a row Ealy is a key player for the Panthers. His play last week was again disappointing, as he had little impact for the second straight week. Carolina was able to get by without contributions from Ealy as Blaine Gabbert was downright awful, but this week should be different. Sam Bradford isn’t great, but he played well for the Vikings last week and has had a full week to prepare for the Panthers. Bradford’s got some impressive targets, headlined by breakout performer Stefon Diggs and has the ability to find success against a Panthers D that in the first two weeks has looked unimpressive. Pressuring Bradford will be extremely important as he has a penchant for struggling with defenders closing in on him. Ealy will need to show up this week for Carolina and prove that his Super Bowl performance wasn’t a fluke. If he can get after Bradford, the Panthers should get the best of the Vikings.
The importance of Sunday’s game stretches far beyond football. It carries more importance than any week 3 game should. The Panthers will not only be trying to improve their record to 2-1, but attempting to improve the atmosphere of an entire city. A victory would mean much more than just another tick in the win column.