Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton walked a fine line Wednesday, saying he takes the sexual assault allegations against Jerry Richardson seriously but adding he doesn’t want to convict the team’s owner and founder before all the facts are in.
Meeting with reporters for the first time since Richardson announced he was selling the team amid an NFL investigation into alleged workplace misconduct, Newton said he didn’t want to rush to judgment.
“Before I say anything, I take sexual assault extremely serious. But allegations? That’s a different thing,” Newton said. “Having a person of influence, a person with so much responsibility, you always are set to a higher standard. No doubt about it. But in this day and time, it’s almost you’re automatically guilty until proven innocent. Rather in the rights of the judicial system, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
“So everything I’ve heard were allegations and nothing was actually proven. It’s just another person’s word versus that person’s word. But I still think extremely highly of Mr. Richardson.”
Newton was among the group of captains who met with Richardson on Sunday evening when he told them he was putting the team up for sale.
A short time later the team issued his five-paragraph letter announcing the decision. That capped an incredible 48-hour stretch that saw the team launch an internal probe (quickly taken over by the league) ahead of an explosive Sports Illustrated report claiming four ex-employees received “significant” money to settle claims of sexual harassment and, in one instance, a racial slur Richardson directed at a former African-American scout.
A reporter mentioned the monetary settlements – which Richardson had not addressed and the Panthers have not denied – were seemingly more than allegations.
“Pretty sure there’s a lot of things that were done. I’m not his lawyer. Let’s be clear about this. Were there things done? Yeah, there were some things done,” Newton said.
“But needless to say, just speaking with the captains and forming our own opinion, we’re all entitled to our own opinion. And until things are actually facts, that’s when you can start making clear judgment.”
Newton – while conceding it was not an “apples to apples” comparison – said his place at the center of an NCAA investigation into a pay-for-play scheme gave him perspective of what Richardson is experiencing.
“It’s still allegations. I basically almost got an NCAA – almost being suspended – just off an allegation. So that’s how I feel about it,” he said. “But it’s still something that somebody said. In what I went through, my allegations, it was all false.”
A 13-month NCAA investigation found Cecil Newton, who is Cam Newton’s father, and former Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers sought between $120,000 and $180,000 for Cam Newton to sign with the Bulldogs.
Newton twice was declared ineligible during Auburn’s national championship season of 2010, but was reinstated both times after Auburn argued he was unaware of the pay-for-play scheme. The Newtons have said they never took money, and Cecil Newton told ESPN in 2014 that he “fell on the sword” to keep his son eligible.
Cam Newton said he left Sunday’s meeting with Richardson unhappy because he didn’t agree with the decision. On Monday Richardson stepped aside from his day-to-day duties with the team, relinquishing those responsibilities to new chief operating officer Tina Becker.
“I left disgruntled because … this is a person who has enlightened me on so many different things on the field as well as off,” Newton said. “And for him to kind of be ejected from my life, (on) the sports side, I don’t even know how to handle that. And yet there still was some positives from the meeting and gave us a clear idea of certain things.”
Despite the chaos surrounding Richardson, the Panthers (10-4) can clinch a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
The team has successfully weathered earlier off-the-field distractions, beginning in September when captains and other team leaders went to Richardson’s house because some players were upset that Richardson’s strong beliefs did not allow them to join the widespread protests or displays of unity in the league.
“I’ve heard an analogy in one of our meetings: ‘The calmest part of a tornado is right in the middle of it,’” Newton said. “Certain times this year we have had our problems with the media. And with great leadership we’ve had so much to lean on.”
Other players echoed Newton’s comments Wednesday, saying they were surprised by the allegations against Richardson but wanted to let the investigation take its course.
“Whenever you hear something like that it’s surprising. But none of us know the entire story, none of us have been there,” wide receiver Damiere Byrd said.
Byrd said coaches have talked about maintaining focus.
“Regardless, we have a game to play,” he said. “We have a season to move on with. And right now that’s what our city needs – for us to go out and play.
“That’s what our owner would want. And that’s what everybody would want us to do is focus in on playing.”