Embattled Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy agreed to take a paid leave of absence Wednesday rather than face a possible suspension from the NFL, a move that will keep the Pro Bowl pass-rusher out until at least November and possibly for the rest of the season.
Hardy will be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, a suspension list reserved for “unusual circumstances.” Earlier Wednesday, the league placed Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on the same list after allegations that he beat his 4-year-old son with a switch.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Hardy’s leave would last until his domestic violence case is resolved. A district judge found Hardy guilty in July of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend during a May 13 altercation at his uptown condo.
He appealed the decision and has a jury trial scheduled for Nov. 17, although his attorney has said the case could be pushed back to 2015. The Panthers will play nine games between now and Nov. 17.
Hardy will continue to collect his guaranteed $13.1 million salary while on leave – including more than $6.9 million of it before the jury trial.
Gettleman said Hardy could seek counseling on his own, but the team will not require him to do so.
Hardy did not comment to reporters before he left Bank of America Stadium in his white Bentley with agent Drew Rosenhaus. In a statement issued later, Hardy said he would concentrate on his court case.
“I understand that I need to step away from football right now and take care of this legal matter,” Hardy said in the release. “I am entitled to due process and my day in court, and that’s where my focus should be. I appreciate the Panthers for giving me this opportunity and look forward to being back with my teammates as soon as possible.
“I am disappointed to leave my teammates and the Carolina Panthers organization during our season. My decision to take a leave of absence allows me to focus on my family until the legal process has run its course.”
Gettleman said Hardy will be allowed to be around the team and the Panthers’ facilities during his leave, but cannot attend or participate in practices. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hopes Hardy will feel welcome at the stadium after a couple days off to “take a breath.”
The seldom-used commissioner exempt list was thrust into the headlines as Commissioner Roger Goodell sought to get his hands around the league’s growing public relations crisis.
With corporate sponsors pulling out in Minnesota after the Vikings initially reinstated Peterson after he was indicted on child-abuse charges, the Vikings quickly reversed course and announced early Wednesday morning that Peterson would be placed on the exempt list.
Only Goodell has the authority to place a player on the exempt list, a special status available to teams only in unusual circumstances. Michael Vick was placed on the list in 2009 while with the Philadelphia Eagles after his release from federal prison on a dog-fighting conviction.
The Panthers can replace Hardy on the 53-man roster, but his $13.1 million salary will continue to count against the salary cap.
The NFL Players Association, which was involved in the discussions about Hardy’s situation, said it supported the decision.
“Greg Hardy made a decision to take a voluntary leave of absence to resolve his pending legal issue,” the union said in a statement. “The NFLPA and NFL worked with Greg, his representatives and the Carolina Panthers on this matter. We support this decision and hope the best for him and his family.”
Gettleman defended the organization’s decision to allow Hardy to play in Week 1 against Tampa Bay, saying it was the right thing at the time before circumstances changed around the league in the wake of a TMZ video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, and Peterson’s indictment on child abuse charges.
With public pressure mounting last week, the Panthers deactivated Hardy 90 minutes before Sunday’s victory against Detroit.
“There’s no rulebook for this. There’s no magic list that we can hit check-boxes with for that to bring us to the right answer,” Gettleman said during an afternoon news conference. “Again, through this whole process since it started back in May, we tried to be as thoughtful and as intentional as possible with everybody that’s involved.
“This is hard now. This is not easy. We’re constantly trying to do the right thing.”
Rivera said he sat down with Hardy for 90 minutes, a meeting that caused Rivera to be late for the Panthers’ practice.
“Greg’s hurt. He really is. It’s a tough situation. He knows he put himself in it,” Rivera said. “He was apologetic with me. We had a great conversation. It’s unfortunate that it was under these circumstances. But he’s resolute in how he feels about his situation and circumstances, and he does expect to be back in November.”
Rivera said he told the team about Hardy’s status during a meeting before the news conference, which was broadcast live by the NFL Network, ESPN and FOX Sports 1 along with many local stations.
Rivera, in his fourth year with the Panthers, said he informed his players Hardy didn’t want to be a distraction anymore and needed to take care of his business.
“Greg is part of this football team. We’ve done nothing other than grant him the leave of absence,” Rivera said. “He’s still being paid. He’s still part of this football team, and in due time he will be back here and hopefully this thing will be resolved.”
Tight end Greg Olsen, one of the Panthers’ captains, was asked whether he was hoping for some resolution amid two weeks of uncertainty about Hardy’s status and increasing media scrutiny.
“I think you just want the right resolution. I think that’s the magic question right now: What is the perfect scenario for everyone? That’s for other people besides us to make those decisions,” Olsen said.
“You kind of look around the league and people are really struggling with it. It’s a very difficult situation for everybody. It’s unfortunate because it sheds the league in a light that’s obviously not very positive.”
The Panthers ramped up security Wednesday afternoon, with several national media outlets at the stadium to cover the Hardy developments. Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers on motorcycles were posted outside the practice field as media members gathered near the gate.
Hardy tied a team record with 15 sacks in 2013, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl during the final year of his contract. He made it clear he was motivated by the possibility of a lucrative new deal.
The Panthers prevented him from hitting the market by applying the franchise tag, a designation teams can use on one free agent each year to bind him to the organization at a set, guaranteed salary.
Two months after Hardy signed that deal in March, police responded to a 911 call he made after an altercation with his ex-girlfriend, a cocktail waitress at the EpiCentre.
After a night of drinking at several Charlotte nightspots, Nicole Holder, Hardy and some of their friends and acquaintances returned to his condo for an after-party. Holder testified during the bench trial that Hardy pushed her into a bathtub, threw her on a futon covered with rifles, put his hands around her throat and threatened to kill her.
Prosecutors said Holder sustained bruises, mostly on her back. Chris Fialko, Hardy’s attorney, argued during the bench trial that the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Hardy would have seriously injured Holder had he done what she claimed.
Hardy said Holder attacked him with her heel, chased him around the condo and threw herself into the bathtub before threatening to kill herself.
After Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Becky Thorne Tin ruled against Hardy in July, Holder’s attorney left open the possibility of a civil suit.
While Hardy deals with his legal issues, his teammates will try to fill a huge void.
Rivera said he will rotate several players at Hardy’s spot. Gettleman expressed regret over losing Hardy, but said the bigger picture was more important.
“He’s an outstanding player. Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Gettleman said. “But we have to get this right. He has to get this right.”