Football fans were met by demonstrators outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte before the Carolina Panthers-Minnesota Vikings game Sunday, as protests over the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott continued into its sixth day.
Amid security concerns and rumors of a rally, the National Football League (NFL) chose not to relocate the game to nearby stadiums outside the city. But should it have?
Whether or not it is right to play a sports game in the midst of racial clashes is a question teams and leagues have faced since riots erupted in Los Angeles in April 1992 over the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
As tensions over race have increased across the country, different teams have responded differently for different reasons. In 1992, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed four games. In 2015, the Baltimore Orioles famously played a game in front of an empty stadium during a nighttime curfew. Ahead of Sunday’s game in Charlotte, some demonstrators agreed with football players and coaches that the game should go on, but also wanted greater shows of support from the athletes and teams.
“It just seems like they’re focused on the game,” Brian Mayes, a protester, told USA Today Saturday. “You’ve got to practice. We understand you’ve got lives. But five minutes to walk down the street and wave to a few people?”
The game that kicked off at 1 p.m. EST was played in the city’s uptown district. The neighborhood is also where the protests have ensued since Tuesday, when Mr. Scott was killed in a police shooting in an apartment complex parking lot about 15 minutes from the stadium. The protests came within blocks of the stadium, according to ESPN. The video of the shooting captured by body footage and police dashboard cameras was also released Saturday night.
Questions over where and when the game should be played have come as many NFL players have been faced with deciding if they should join Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers to protest the national anthem to call attention to racial injustices. No players on the Panthers or the Minnesota Vikings had joined Mr. Kaepernick, and they didn't plan to Sunday.
Cam Newton, the Panthers quarterback and the NFL’s reigning most valuable player, had been criticized for his refusal to join Kaepernick. According to ESPN, one protester in Charlotte called on fans Wednesday to burn their Newton jerseys if the quarterback didn’t take a knee during the anthem Sunday.
Mr. Newton, who is black, didn’t. But he acted out of character leading up to the game, publicly addressing social issues. He wore a warm-up T-shirt Sunday with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. printed on the back: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” it read.
Newton also spent the majority of a news conference Wednesday speaking about the protests. He was even-handed in his comments.
“I’m an African-American, and I’m not happy how the justice has been dealt with over the years and the state of oppression in our community,” he said, according to ESPN. “But we also as black people have to do right by ourselves. We can’t be hypocrites.”
As the NFL and city of Charlotte deliberated over whether the game should be relocated, coaches and players from both teams said the game should be played there because it would be good for the city.
Panthers players Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen acted as spokesmen for the rest of the roster Thursday.
"This game absolutely should be played Sunday,'' said Mr. Davis, according to ESPN. "I look at football as a way to bring people together.... I hope people know that violence is not the answer. It's not the way to solve this problem."
"On Sundays, when people come and watch us, not only do people see that, but to a bigger level those people sitting in the crowd are from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, from all religious denominations,'' Mr. Olsen added. "But for one day, for one afternoon for a few hours, they all come together for a few hours around the Carolina Panthers."
The buildup to Sunday’s game is much different than it was for baseball players and fans at Dodger Stadium on April 28, 1992, when they learned about the Rodney King riots.
In the seventh inning of an otherwise unmemorable game, a PA announcement said no drivers could leave the stadium from southbound exits into downtown Los Angeles because race riots were raging south of there in South Central LA.
The Dodgers postponed four later games, making all of them up through doubleheaders.
"It was just the real world, because when you're in a baseball park, it's the last thing you think of, whether you're playing or watching," Mike Scioscia, then a catcher for the Dodgers, recalled to USA Today 20 years later. "So what happened in Baltimore certainly is almost like a replay of what we went through in Los Angeles.''
Scioscia was referring to the riots in Baltimore that broke out after Freddie Gray died in police custody.
The Orioles canceled an entire home stand, instead agreeing to play a game without fans to “minimize safety concerns,” as Major League Baseball said in a statement at the time. The Orioles played against the Chicago White Sox in front of an empty stadium because a nighttime curfew was in effect in the city.
In St. Louis, Mo., in 2014, the Rams played a game against the San Francisco 49ers at the height of tensions in nearby Ferguson. The protests spilled into the game, as demonstrators marched through a section of the stadium chanting "Hands up, don't shoot." and dropping banners about the Black Lives Matter movement. In another game later that season, five Rams players ran onto the turf during pregame introductions with their hands up in deference to the protests.
Yet, in Charlotte Sunday, the short distance between the protests and the stadium gave fans and residents a unique opportunity to come together.
Two men, both wearing Panthers gear, held up signs offering hugs.
“Which I thought was very cool,” Panthers fan Donna Bright told The Washington Post. “Made me feel a lot better.”