Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton expressed affection and admiration Sunday for team founding owner Jerry Richardson.
That doesn’t mean Newton dismissed serious allegations made about Richardson’s behavior in a Sports Illustrated investigation published online just before kickoff of the Panthers’ victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The SI report detailed four “significant” monetary settlements made to Panthers employees as a result of inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by Richardson. Those incidents included “sexually suggestive language and behavior, and at least one occasion directing a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.”
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“I really haven’t dug into the investigation, or the story, but personally from me, (Richardson has) given me an opportunity to make a big impact for my family,” said Newton, who is playing on a five-year contract worth in excess of $100 million.
Newton said he appreciates the gravity of this, particularly in the current climate nationally. Numerous public figures, including U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, have been accused of improprieties of a sexual nature. The “Me, too” Movement has taken on national scope, with women telling stories of powerful men abusing their authority over female subordinates.
“That’s something extremely serious right now, especially when you see so many people getting picked out because of things they have done in the past,” Newton said in his post-game news conference. “I don’t take that lightly.
“I was just telling you my personal experiences with Mr. Richardson, and how he has had such a father-like role to a lot of players in that locker room, present and past.”
Defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, in his second stint with the Panthers, said he has no personal experience to suggest Richardson is racially insensitive.
“Nope, I never heard that. I don’t know where those accusations are coming from,” Munnerlyn said. “Mr. Richardson has always been a nice man to me. Every time I see him, he puts a smile on my face.”
This issue first became public early Friday evening, when the Panthers issued a brief statement saying there would be an investigation by the team into possible workplace misconduct by Richardson. That was in apparent response to inquiries by Sports Illustrated, directed to the team. Sunday, the NFL announced it would lead the investigation, rather than the Panthers.
“Everybody was like, ‘What?!’ Everybody was shocked,” Munnerlyn said of Friday’s team announcement. “But we don’t want to just jump to conclusions, to say things. Just let the investigation happen, and move on from there.”
Richardson, 81, a former wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, pursued NFL expansion to Charlotte in the early 1990s before the Panthers’ inaugural season in 1995. Though the Richardson family owns less than half of the team, Richardson has always served as head of the franchise. His partners erected a statue of him outside Bank of America Stadium.
“These situations are hard. Without knowing a lot of the information, I don’t even know really what to call (it), but that’s why they’re doing the investigation. And we’ll see what the end result of that is,” said tight end Greg Olsen.
“I know what relationship I’ve had with Mr. Richardson personally: It’s been nothing but a really strong and positive one. And I would imagine a lot of other guys could say that. But it’s hard to really speculate on where we’re at.”
There is a possible recent precedent in major-league sports with Donald Sterling, formerly the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
In the spring of 2014, recordings of Sterling making racist comments became public. The NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million, took away his authority as team owner and ultimately forced a sale of the team to Steve Balmer, the former CEO of Microsoft.
“I hope things (don’t) alter my thinking of Mr. Richardson,” Newton said. “He has given me some things I will always be appreciative for.
“It’s just too early to tell” how this could play out, Newton added. “I’m answering questions (when) I really don’t know what the factual statements are. I really can’t get to you with that, but I think highly of Mr. Richardson. It takes only time (for) everybody that the truth comes out.”