Editor’s note: After this story was published, Jerry Richardson announced plans to sell the Carolina Panthers after the end of the 2017 season.
Following an explosive report of racial and sexual workplace misconduct allegations against Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, questions linger about repercussions from the league and possible financial fallout for the team.
Sports Illustrated reported Sunday that at least four former Panthers employees have received “significant” monetary settlements as a result of inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by Richardson, 81, who led the ownership group that brought professional football to the Carolinas in 1995.
Per the suggestion of the Panthers, the NFL is taking over the investigation of workplace misconduct by Richardson, a league source confirmed Sunday.
Chicago sports business consultant Marc Ganis said he could not foresee a situation in which the NFL forces Richardson to sell the team. But Ganis does anticipate backlash, especially amid the public’s focus on sexual harassment and racism.
“I would expect there would be some backlash not so much among fans, but professional protesters and others who want to highlight these issues that have been taking place in society,” said Ganis, who knows Richardson personally and describes him as respectful of all his employees.
Generally, a controversy involving a player or a front office executive would not have an appreciable impact on consumer demand for the team in terms of ticket sales or TV ratings, according to Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sponsorship renewals, however, could be affected, Jansen said. That was the case recently when sponsors such as Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s and Hershey’s opted not to renew with USA Gymnastics after a former team doctor pleaded guilty to a variety of sexual harassment crimes.
“Sponsors pay to be associated with the positive aspects of a team’s brand in order to generate positive feelings and improved attitudes towards the sponsoring brand. Research has shown that the impact on a fan can be in the subconscious,” Jansen said.
“So any association with a team that is negative in nature could potentially be transferred to sponsors, endangering the possibility of a renewal of the brand’s relationship with the team in the future.”
The NFL’s most recent past handling of misconduct involving an owner was in 2014, when following a driving-under-the-influence plea, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended by the NFL for six games and fined $500,000.
It’s unclear whether disciplinary action for racism in other leagues could provide a precedent for how the NFL handles Richardson.
After former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded making racist remarks, including one referring to former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, the NBA forced Sterling to sell the team and he was banned for life from the NBA. Commissioner Adam Silver was lauded for his crisis management.
This isn’t the first time racial discrimination has come up for Jerry Richardson professionally.
In 1994, the Richardson-controlled restaurant chain Denny’s agreed to pay $54 million to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of black customers nationwide who had been discriminated against, marking the largest racial discrimination settlement involving public accommodations up to that time. According to the lawsuits, black customers oftentimes were forced to wait longer for their orders than white patrons. Others were denied service altogether, or made to prepay for service.
Denny’s was then a subsidiary of Spartanburg, S.C.-based Flagstar Companies, the restaurant and food-service company Jerry Richardson co-founded in 1961 with a single Hardee’s hamburger restaurant.
“I have preached treating people fairly my entire business career. I do not believe there is a culture to discriminate against anyone,” Richardson said in a 1994 Observer story.
Richardson has also been criticized for his response to racial issues in recent months.
Amid player protests over police brutality and racism earlier this season, Richardson was the next-to-last owner to weigh in with a statement after President Donald Trump said at a rally in Alabama that owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.
Richardson was criticized as being tone deaf, and later invited team captains to his SouthPark home to discuss the matter. He said he supported his players but also made it clear he believes sports and politics should remain separate, so as not to damage the NFL.
When news broke of the investigation this weekend, some fans remembered that in 2011, Richardson went on “The Charlie Rose Show” and recalled a conversation he had with Cam Newton before the draft when he asked Newton if he had any tattoos or piercings. When Newton told Richardson he did not, Richardson told Rose he responded: “Good. We want to keep it that way.”
Ganis, the Chicago sports business consultant, said allegations in the Sports Illustrated report could pertain to many other “men who are a certain age.”
“Are we going to now start prosecuting men ... who were brought up in a different era who by all other accounts are incredibly respectful of and appreciative of their staff but handle personal interaction in the way it was handled in the 1950s-1960s? Are we going to expect everyone to live by standard of 2017? That’s a Pandora’s box,” Ganis said.