What I believe was the beginning of the end of Jerry Richardson’s tenure as the owner of the Carolina Panthers came just before the Green Bay-Carolina kickoff Sunday.
That’s when Sports Illustrated published a blockbuster report on Richardson’s alleged workplace misconduct – including sexual harassment, a racial slur and the owner asking some of his female employees if he could “personally shave their legs.”
The SI story, if true, I believe will serve to oust Richardson one way or another from the team that he founded and which he has owned since the Panthers began play in 1995.
The NFL is very image-conscious, and Richardson’s image just got tarnished with the sort of stain that no amount of scrubbing is going to wash away completely.
This is not one glass of red wine dumped on a crisp white dress shirt like the ones that Richardson favors. This is that same shirt getting dunked into a barrel of red wine, then dragged through a dumpster, then set afire. The allegations against Carolina’s 81-year-old owner are dramatic, salacious and cross so many barriers that it’s hard to imagine Richardson’s business career surviving them.
I believe – and this is just a guess – that Richardson will now sell the team sooner rather than later. This would make his fellow owners happy, assuming the allegations are true.
The Panthers said they had no immediate comment on the SI report through a spokesman.
I think the Panthers will ultimately stay in Charlotte no matter who owns them – this has been a good market for the NFL for a long time – but of course that’s no sure thing, either.
What Richardson really should do if the allegations are true is find a local ownership group (perhaps among his own current partners?), make sure the team stays in Charlotte and then sell it even if he could get a higher price elsewhere.
Richardson owes Panthers fans at least that much, and that way he would at least preserve a portion of his legacy. If this report is proven true and then Richardson also became instrumental in moving the team, Richardson’s name will be a curse word in Charlotte.
In other words, if this Sports Illustrated story is true, the team should stay.
But Richardson should go.
‘Back rubs that lingered’
If you haven’t read the allegations yet, let’s summarize a few of them in brief. The Sports Illustrated report alleges:
▪ At least four former Panthers employees have received significant monetary settlements from Richardson after inappropriate behavior from the owner “in exchange for what amounted to a vow of silence.”
▪ On at least one occasion, Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.
▪ Richardson not only verbally harassed some of his female employees – especially on Fridays, which were “Jeans Day” and became fodder for many inappropriate comments by the owner – but also would sometimes request them to visit him in his suite inside Bank of America Stadium.
Richardson’s assistant would escort the women to Richardson’s office and then leave. One former female employee recalled Richardson “arriving barefoot and asking for a foot massage.” Others, said the magazine, talked about Richardson “giving back rubs that lingered too long or went too low down the spine.”
‘Let the process unfold’
There’s more, but you get the point. The #MeToo movement has arrived in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium. The man everyone refers to as “Mister” inside the Panthers’ offices – with no surname necessary – is in major trouble. The shock value of the Sports Illustrated story will eventually fade, but Richardson will never be perceived exactly the same way again in the Carolinas.
In the Panthers locker room Sunday after Carolina edged Green Bay, 31-24, most players and coaches talked glowingly about their personal relationships with Richardson. They also mostly hedged their bets on the allegations themselves, not passing judgment on them one way or the other. “You are guessing at this point,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ll just let the process unfold.”
Added Rivera about his personal relationship with Richardson: “I had a house fire and he was there for (Rivera’s wife) Stephanie and I.... My brother passed (away) and Mr. Richardson was there and helped me get to the funeral and back.... You guys know that my second year he could have easily fired me. He and I sat down and he gave me an opportunity to go into my third season and this is where I am today.”
Said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “Mr. Richardson has been an unbelievable source in my life... I have found a place of refuge with Mr. Richardson.”
But, Newton added, the allegations are “extremely serious.”
“I don’t take that lightly,” the quarterback said. “... For me, I hope (the investigation) doesn’t alter my thinking of Mr. Richardson.”
Far from business as usual
Besides the embarrassment of the story for the Panthers and Richardson and the various tangential concerns – what to do about that 13-foot statue of Richardson outside the stadium? – there is a big business side to this as well.
What sponsors are going to be jumping up and down to renew deals – or sign new ones – with the Panthers after this? Who wants to work with a guy who allegedly insisted that he buckle the seat belts of female employees and, in doing so, would also be “brushing his hand across their breasts”?
The Panthers tried to get ahead of this story on Friday, announcing that they were going to investigate their owner for workplace misconduct. By Sunday, the NFL had taken over that investigation with the Panthers’ support. Investigators will have wide latitude and will undoubtedly mine some of the same ground that Sports Illustrated did.
If you didn’t know any better on Sunday, you would have thought it was business as usual at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers played the Green Bay Packers and beat them in front of a raucous full house. Richardson, the only current NFL owner to have also played in the league, sat in his customary front-row seat in an end zone skybox beside his wife.
But underneath the stadium is a virtual volcano, and it has started to erupt.
By the time this is over, I believe it will sweep Jerry Richardson right out the stadium doors.