The Carolina Panthers announced on Friday that the team is investigating team owner and founder Jerry Richardson for allegations of workplace misconduct.
Richardson, 81, has owned the team since it began play as an NFL expansion franchise in the 1995 season and led the ownership group that brought professional football to the Carolinas.
The investigation will be conducted by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, LLP, an international law firm based in Los Angeles. Erskine Bowles, a limited owner with the team and a former White House Chief of Staff, will oversee the probe.
“The Carolina Panthers and Mr. Richardson take these allegations very seriously and are fully committed to a full investigation and taking appropriate steps to address and remediate any misconduct,” team spokesman Steven Drummond said in a statement. “The entire organization is fully committed to ensuring a safe, comfortable and diverse work environment where all individuals, regardless of sex, race, color, religion, gender, or sexual identity or orientation, are treated fairly and equally. We have work to do to achieve this goal, but we are going to meet it.”
The statement said the Panthers cannot comment publicly on the specifics of the allegations.
“Erskine Bowles is a trusted leader of unquestioned integrity,” Drummond said. “We look forward to this report, which we know will be honest and thorough.”
Drummond declined comment when asked by the Observer whether the allegations were made by a current or former employee, or whether there were multiple complaints. He also wouldn’t comment on whether the investigation was into sexual misconduct. He also said he couldn’t comment on who selected the law firm to do the investigation.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy had no comment on the situation, or when asked whether the league would launch its own investigation.
Charlotte businessman Cameron Harris, who is part of the team’s ownership group, said he was “totally surprised” by Friday’s announcement and had no knowledge of the investigation.
“I would be totally surprised if there was anything to this,” he said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera released a statement through the team.
“I have had a strong relationship with Mr. Richardson during my time with the Panthers,” Rivera said. “I have enormous respect for the man, but will wait for the results of the investigation before making any judgment.”
The law firm hired to investigate the allegation against Richardson is one of the largest in the world devoted to business litigation and arbitration. Quinn Emanuel employs more than 720 lawyers and has 21 locations worldwide.
Richardson did not attend the league meeting this week in Dallas, and has missed many of the owners meetings in recent years because of health concerns. Richardson had a heart transplant in 2009.
Tina Becker, whose title is executive director, owner’s office, was scheduled to represent the Panthers at the one-day meeting this week, Drummond said.
An NFL source said the Panthers notified the league before Friday’s news release.
A native Carolinian who is the only current owner to have also played in the NFL, Richardson began the process of trying to obtain an NFL team for Charlotte in 1987 and was awarded the franchise on Oct. 26, 1993. Richardson is a former wide receiver at Wofford and with the Baltimore Colts who made his money mostly in the restaurant business. He has been the Panthers’ majority owner since the day it began play in 1995.
Richardson has rarely appeared in public settings in recent years, although he has continued to attend Panthers games. He made headlines in 2009 when his sons, Mark and Jon, both suddenly resigned their team presidencies.
The very public family split meant that the family business was no longer much of a family business. Richardson said in 2009 he and his family owned 48 percent of the team, with the other 52 percent being owned by a group of about a dozen minority partners. There have been numerous reports that the plan is for the Panthers to be sold within two years of Richardson’s death.
In 2016, in honor of Richardson’s 80th birthday, his business partners with the Panthers unveiled a nearly 13-foot statue of Richardson. The sculpture stands in front of the north gate of Bank of America Stadium. It shows Richardson in a business suit, holding a football and flanked by two black panthers. There is also a statue of Richardson at Wofford College, where Richardson was a star football player in the 1950s and where the Panthers hold training camp every summer. The Charlotte 49ers also play their college football games in Jerry Richardson Stadium.
In recent years, Richardson has been far less involved in the business of the NFL than he was for most of his career as an owner. The Panthers made a couple of unusual front-office moves in 2017 that Richardson has never answered questions about. Team president Danny Morrison, a popular figure who worked on the business side of the operations, resigned unexpectedly in February after eight years on the job. He had taken over many of the responsibilities of Richardson’s sons and has not been replaced, with his responsibilities instead divided among other senior front-office staff.
And on the eve of training camp in late July, Richardson unexpectedly fired general manager Dave Gettleman. In four years as the Panthers GM, Gettleman’s Carolina teams had made the playoffs three times and the Super Bowl once. Richardson then hired former GM Marty Hurney – who Richardson had previously fired in 2012 – to serve as the interim general manager.
Staff writers Rick Rothacker and Joe Marusak contributed.