Opinion

The Carolina Panthers are already starting their season the right way

The Carolina Panthers and team owner David Tepper have announced an initial relief package intended to help victims of tropical storm Florence. Part of it includes $1 million to go to the American Red Cross.
The Carolina Panthers and team owner David Tepper have announced an initial relief package intended to help victims of tropical storm Florence. Part of it includes $1 million to go to the American Red Cross. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Even before the Carolina Panthers opened their schedule with a win last Sunday, their season looked promising in another, significant way. If you follow our city’s most popular franchise, you can’t help but feel the fresh breeze that is David Tepper. His comments Thursday defending the patriotism of his players is a message the NFL badly needs to send, and his unbuttoned enthusiasm with most everything else is precisely what the Panthers — and perhaps the city — needed after a dark end to the tenure of Jerry Richardson.

There’s little need to reopen the door to the former owner’s closet again today. Suffice it to say it’s been a difficult year for the team and its fans. But beyond the embarrassing end to Richardson’s ownership, there’s a stark difference in the new guy to the old one. While Charlotte owes Richardson its gratitude for bringing the NFL to our city, owning a franchise never seemed particularly joyful to him. Maybe it was more so behind the scenes, but the city’s lasting image of Richardson is his sitting stone-faced at his stadium watching a game or standing uncomfortably to answer media questions in one of his rare public appearances.

Tepper, however, is having some fun. He’s dancing on the field before games. He’s laughing with players or fans or whomever he’s around — and he’s around a lot in Charlotte.

That last part is important. Our city has always appreciated, and almost demanded, that its business leaders be a willing participant in life here. Some have embraced Charlotte, and they’ve been embraced right back. Thus far, Tepper understands that role and responsibility. He even seems to enjoy it.

Sure, it’s easy to wink at the world when you’re worth billions and one of fewer than three dozen people in the world to own an NFL team. And no, it won’t always be fun for Tepper. There inevitably will be uncomfortable moments on and off the field for the Panthers, and Tepper will surely face a parade of complaints big and small (can we take another look at those concessions, sir?). Tepper also has inherited his 1/32 share of the NFL’s woes, including the league’s continued inability to get out of its own way on the issue of players protesting for social justice.

Plus, as every pro sports owner knows, things can go from happy to hard fast when you start asking the public for money.

We’re encouraged that Tepper already has expressed to his players that he’d like to help their charitable endeavors. We also hope he brings a new perspective to the old guard of NFL owners who view their players’ social justice concerns in the narrow construct of kneeling vs. standing. On Thursday, he just did that, telling CNBC that it’s “dead wrong” to call NFL players unpatriotic for kneeling.

That’s an important, powerful message that NBA owners understand will not hurt their brand, and we hope Tepper’s fellow owners eventually get it. For now, though, Tepper has offered everyone a simple, refreshing reminder these last couple of months: Sports is also supposed to be fun. It’s a business and a game, and today it begins again for Charlotte’s pro football team. Enjoy it for all that it is and isn’t. David Tepper is.

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