‘That was then. This is now.’ David Tepper vows to fix Panthers’ workplace culture

David Tepper, Panthers new owner, meets the Charlotte press

The Carolina Panthers new owner, David Tepper, takes questions during his first press conference as owner, at Bank of America Stadium.
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The Carolina Panthers new owner, David Tepper, takes questions during his first press conference as owner, at Bank of America Stadium.

David Tepper made it abundantly clear what one of his top priorities is as the new Carolina Panthers owner: Fix the problematic office culture he inherited from team founder Jerry Richardson.

"That was then. This is now," Tepper said multiple times during his introductory news conference at Bank of America Stadium Tuesday, a day after his $2.275 billion deal to buy the team closed.

Richardson announced plans to sell the team amid allegations of sexual and racial workplace misconduct by him, as reported by Sports Illustrated nearly seven months ago.

There will be no use of non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of harassment in the workplace, Tepper said. There will be an environment where employees should feel comfortable reporting misconduct, he added.

"This is going to be an open place. There’s not going to be non-disclosure agreements, no matter what, in this new place," Tepper said. "This is going to be an open place where people are going to have the right people to talk to."

The use of non-disclosure agreements has become a focal point of the #MeToo movement, as they prevent victims of sexual harassment from publicly sharing their stories. The controversial agreements have been used by high-profile individuals across several industries, including politics, entertainment, sports and business.

Banning NDAs has been gaining traction. Lawmakers in California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are all considering expanding their laws to prohibit NDAs in a range of sexual harassment and assault settlements, according to the ACLU.

But NDAs were apparently commonly used at Bank of America Stadium to protect Richardson.

According to the Sports Illustrated report published hours before Richardson announced plans to sell the team in December, Richardson made financial settlements with multiple former team employees, who in turn signed non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements in exchange for their silence.

During the sale process, the NFL conducted an investigation of Richardson, 81. Led by former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White, the NFL's investigation substantiated the claims, and the league hit Richardson with its biggest-ever fine, $2.75 million, in late June.

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In addition to her investigation findings, White made several recommendations to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on ways to improve workplace culture.

These include prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements to limit reporting of workplace misconduct violations; requiring that claims of workplace misconduct be reported to the NFL; establishing a hotline to confidentially report misconduct and reviewing workplace "best practices" with team owners and other executives.

Tepper has said he agrees with all of White's recommendations.

“If I do something incredibly stupid, they should be talking about me. That’s what this place is going to be," he said.

Previously, Tepper said, the Panthers' front office did not seem like a place where employees were able to freely discuss their workplace concerns. "There’s going to be no impediment to that in the future," he said.

Tepper didn't give much detail, however, when asked whether he will investigate the people who helped protect Richardson and remain with the Panthers. "I cannot emphasize enough the openness I plan to have at this organization," he said.

At the Atlanta NFL owners meetings in May, about six weeks before Tepper was briefed on White's findings, Tepper was hesitant to detail the kinds of changes he'd implement with the Panthers.

But he reaffirmed his views on gender equality, which he has said is a priority as he takes over the reins as the Panthers' second-ever owner: "I’m a person who believes in equality for everybody, men and women."

Also at the NFL meeting in Atlanta, Goodell wouldn't say whether any of the former Panthers employees who have financial settlements with Richardson would be offered protection for breaking their non-disclosure agreements.

Even if Tepper adopts White recommendations for the Panthers, it's unclear whether the NFL will adopt them league-wide.

Ahead of the start of the 2018 season, the NFL's Conduct Committee will be considering whether to apply White's recommendations across the league. A league spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Fixing workplace culture at a pro sports franchise isn't unique to the NFL.

The Dallas Mavericks are in the midst of an independent investigation over whether the team protected two former employees — one is accused of domestic violence, the other of sexual harassment. Soon after news broke of that scandal, the NBA launched a confidential hotline for employees to report workplace misconduct.