Linebacker Carlton Bailey noticed, from the beginning in 1995, a difference in the Carolina Panthers.
Unlike on some NFL teams, there were no cliques. The high-salaried players didn’t hang out in one corner and the rookies in another. The defense didn’t eschew the offense. And black players and white players didn’t head in opposite directions.
“On other teams, when you got on the bus, the white guys migrated to one bus, the black guys to another,” Bailey said.
That locker room harmony formed a bond that led Carolina to a 7-9 record in 1995 -- the team’s first season of existence -- and a stunning 12-4 mark in 1996.
Then, in preseason, that harmony was lost, and some wonder whether it ever returned.
“Things happened around here that were very ugly early on,” cornerback Eric Davis said. “Time heals all wounds -- or exposes them.”
On Aug. 6, when the team was at training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., quarterback Kerry Collins used a racial slur that offended black teammates. Specifics of the incident have never come out.
Collins apologized the next day, telling teammates that the slur -- “nigga” -- was made in jest. After Collins’ apology, the Panthers tried to put the incident behind them. Collins has consistently denied he is racist.
Whether that slur ever can be inoffensive is suspect. Safety Pat Terrell, for example, said he rarely hears the word in the locker room and doesn't use it himself.
Bailey said he occasionally hears the word.
“Guys might use it in their own little clique,” he said. “You don't find a lot of older guys saying it. The younger guys say it, but when they say it, they mean, ‘This is my ace, this is my No. 1 person.’”
The racial incident has been part of a difficult season for Collins, who has endured a broken jaw, booing by fans, 18 interceptions, and a 57.9 quarterback rating, the lowest among NFL’s regular starters.
“It hasn’t been fun,” Collins, 24, said of his season. “A lot of things I wish didn’t happen, but they did. I think we all owned up to them and went from there.”
Still, Carolina takes a disappointing 7-8 record into today’s 4 PM game at Ericsson Stadium against the St. Louis Rams (4-11), and no one talks any more about the Panthers having a special camaraderie.
How much the racial incident has affected the season is difficult to pinpoint because the team has struggled with fundamentals, including turnovers and defending the run.
Many said the racial issue washed over.
“I can sincerely say I don’t believe there was an iota of a lingering issue with it,” general manager Bill Polian.
Bailey said: “After the whole thing transpired, after he got to apologize, as the season went on, that wore off.”
But others aren’t so certain the incident was forgotten.
“There’s more going on than people try to make it out to be. It’s not forgotten,” linebacker Andre Royal said. “Every now and then I still hear it brought it up [by Panthers players].
“All through the season, people never forgot about it. When Kerry did good, everybody was like, ‘Man, it's about time!’ And when he did bad, you’d hear the talk again. People behind his back talking [about] his play and the incident, everything. Guys on his side of the ball and everything.”
Davis, a veteran cornerback, hasn’t been directly critical of Collins, but hasn’t rushed to his defense, either.
“You can’t get anything done unless you respect a person,” Davis said in reference to establishing racial harmony. “I don’t have to like you to work with you. But if I respect you, we can do what we set out to do. If I don’t respect you, I can’t work with you, because your opinions will mean nothing to me.”
Visibly, what happened in preseason did not seem to racially polarize the locker room. Players -- black and white -- still lounge together in front of TVs sets just off the locker room, and the buses to the games remain a mix of the races.
The Panthers have more white players than the league average. Two-thirds of NFL players are black, but African-Americans make up only 51 percent of Carolina’s 53-man roster. The Panthers have 27 black players, 25 whites and one native American Samoa.
Carolina will start 10 blacks and 12 whites in today’s game.
Polian and Coach Dom Capers say they haven’t built the team with race in mind. Instead, they look for high-character players who will set a positive tone in the locker room. Linebacker Sam Mills, who is black, has emerged as a key leader.
Also, Polian and Capers said, race can’t be much of a factor in selecting players because the bottom line is performance.
“In football, a person is measured by today’s performance, not potential,” Polian said. “Production is the only thing that counts. The color of your skin, your ethnic background, how much you make, where you went to school, who your parents are, your marital status, none of that means anything.”
Polian and Capers said the common desire to win overrides any emphasis on race.
And many Panthers are friends with their teammates, regardless of skin color. Terrell, who is black, is close with fellow safety Chad Cota, who is white, and their wives socialize together.
Many associated with the team say the bonds between black and white players remain strong. Capers said he has “never sensed any tension” between the players, and said that since Collins’ apology, no player has come to him to discuss the initial incident.
But to say players aren’t conscious of race to win overrides any emphasis on race. African-American linebacker Lamar Lathon, when asked earlier this season about Cota’s strong play, said: “Chad’s whole thing is he’s till in that situation where he feels he has to prove himself. It’s very rare to have a white strong safety come up and do the things he’s been able to do. He’s come up strong in a lot of big games.”
No player has been directly critical of Collins since his racial slur. However, it’s fair to point out that because most NFL contracts are not guaranteed, a backup cornerback, for example, probably wouldn’t jeopardize his roster spot by criticizing Collins, the club’s highest-profile player.
That same player, however, might make subtle digs about Collins in private, as Royal suggested.
What many people have made clear is that the Panthers’ chemistry has deteriorated since last season. Royal said the declining camaraderie in the locker room wasn’t directly related to the racial incident, but it was once of several situations that chipped away at club harmony.
Royal said the holdout of linebacker Kevin Greene and the loss of key veterans to free agency also contributed.
“It’s a different camaraderie in terms of the veteran leadership in here,” cornerback Toi Cook said. “In the past, we had a couple of team parties, we had a rookie party, we had a [defensive back] party. We had about four parties during the year.
“This year, we have had none.”
In unseen ways, the Collins incident might have been among several factors that chipped away at the team chemistry of last season.
The Panthers lost veteran free agents such as receiver Willie Green and fullback Howard Griffith, cut Greene after a salary dispute, and then endured the turmoil and negative publicity generated by their star quarterback using a racial slur.
“You get a couple of distractions going, which they had early in the season, and it can be tough,” said Griffith, who signed with the Denver Broncos. “This year is nothing like the first two years. They really became a real NFL team with dealing with free agency and the off-the-field problems.”
Green, who also is with the Broncos, said he was shocked and angered when he read what Collins had said. But then Green realized that Collins simply must have made a mistake.
“I knew Kerry. I’d talked to his guy,” Green said. “I don’t think he has a racial bone in his body.”
Bailey said he hates the word that Collins used.
“If you’ve gone to college, you should be able to use better words than that, whether you’re black or white,” the linebacker said.
The racial slur was the beginning of a long season for Collins, the third-year quarterback from Penn State who entered this season as a star on the rise.
He had a spectacular minicamp in June and appeared to be throwing the ball with the most confidence of his career, but his season suffered setbacks over a four-day period.
The racial slur came Aug. 6, and reports indicated receive Mushin Muhammad was among the players upset by what Collins said. Muhammad said later that he accepted the apology and refused to explain the details of what happened. He declined to comment for this story.
Also on Aug. 6, Collins’ eye was blackened by offensive tackle Norberto Davidds-Garrido. Initial reports said Davidds-Garrido hit Collins in a Spartanburg bar during training camp, but the tackle denied those reports and said he hit Collins in the eye while horsing around in the residence hall.
Davidds-Garrido said he and Collins “patched up things and worked through them.” Asked if the incident had any impact on this season, Davidds-Garrido said: “No, not at all.”
On Aug. 9, Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski broke Collins’ jaw with an illegal hit in a preseason game. Collins didn’t play again until Sept. 14, when the Panthers rushed him back for a game at the San Diego Chargers.
His season soon unraveled.
“The thing that affected this team and Kerry Collins’ year more than anything he ever said was the breaking of his jaw by Romanowski,” Polian said. “That had a lingering effect.”
And the racial incident?
Davis, the veteran cornerback, said: “We had enough guys in here who understand the simple fact is all you can do is apologize, and all you can do is choose to accept it -- and then go on, live your life, and see.
“Being a black male, it’s not that uncommon to deal with remarks like that. It’s not a perfect world.”