An NFL official says the league had no knowledge of the reported financial agreements the Panthers made with four former employees to settle claims of sexual harassment and, in one instance, a racial slur, by team owner Jerry Richardson.
The settlements were part of an explosive Sports Illustrated report last weekend that prompted the NFL to launch its investigation and resulted in Richardson’s decision to sell the team after the 2017 season.
And according to Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, the league found out when everyone else did.
“I don’t believe the league was (aware),” Lockhart said Thursday. “But certainly that is an area that the investigation will look into.”
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The Panthers’ failure to report the settlements could be a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy, which requires teams and players to let the league know of any matters that potentially fall under the policy.
Lockhart, a former White House press secretary, said the NFL will hire outside counsel to lead the investigation of Richardson.
Lisa Friel, a former New York sex-crimes prosecutor hired by the NFL in 2014 to help commissioner Roger Goodell handle domestic-violence probes, will not be a part of the Richardson investigation, according to Lockhart.
The wide-ranging issues surrounding the Richardson allegations require the expertise of an independent law firm, Lockhart said.
“We just made the judgment that an outside firm is most appropriate,” he said during a conference call with reporters who cover the NFL.
The NFL faces a potential sticking point in its investigation of Richardson – namely, the “significant” monetary settlements the Panthers made with the four ex-employees, who were not named in the SI report. Those confidential settlements included non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses, which might have been breached.
Nevertheless, Lockhart said the league expects the Panthers to cooperate whenever the investigation begins (he did not mention a timeline).
“We fully expect full cooperation,” Lockhart said. “And failure to cooperate has its own set of consequences and potential discipline. So I don’t see any reason why everyone there won’t cooperate. I don’t want to anticipate non-cooperation.”
Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said the team had no comment Thursday.
The Panthers first announced they would conduct their own probe into workplace misconduct involving Richardson, 81, who brought pro football to the Carolinas when he was awarded an expansion franchise in 1993.
The team’s initial announcement Friday – two days before the SI piece appeared online – said Panthers limited partner Erskine Bowles would lead the investigation, drawing criticism across the league.
The NFL moved quickly to take over the investigation, which is moving forward despite Richardson’s decision to sell.
“When you have allegations of these sorts, they’re something the league takes very seriously,” Lockhart said. “So we want to make sure that we look into this, both allegations made against the owner and the personnel involved in the team.”
According to the SI report, Richardson’s accusers described similar behaviors they said created an uncomfortable work environment. The reported misconduct included comments about female employees’ appearance on “Jeans Day” at the office, notes accompanied by small cash payments with encouragement to use the money for massages or dresses and requests by Richardson to personally shave their legs.
Sources also told SI that Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American scout, who left the team this year.
The Panthers said this week Richardson was stepping aside from his day-to-day duties with the club, turning them over to executive Tina Becker.
Lockhart said the NFL had no input on Richardson’s decision to sell a franchise recently valued at $2.3 billion by Forbes.
“There was no pressure from the league to Mr. Richardson,” he said. “I think he came to the conclusion over that weekend that putting the team up for sale was what he wanted to do. I think we found out about that shortly before the announcement went out.”