While Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has found a buyer for his franchise, the allegations and events that precipitated the sale of the team in the first place remain under investigation.
While Richardson has agreed to sell the franchise for an NFL-record price of $2.2 billion to hedge fund manager David Tepper, questions remain about the pace and scope of the league’s investigation into allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson.
Asked Tuesday about the status of the independent investigation led by Mary Jo White, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said: “The matter remains under review.”
Industry experts say they expect the NFL to proceed with the investigation of Richardson regardless of the sale, which is expected to be approved by the league owners next week in Atlanta.
“It can’t be brushed under the rug,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive and the director of Villanova’s sports law program. “This is obviously a topic for the league, for the country. It’s so much in the spotlight, it can’t go away.
“But that’s not to say we hear some one-paragraph statement somewhere down the line saying it’s been looked at and there’s no further action. That could happen, as well.
“But I would be very surprised if we heard something like that’s over simply because the timing of this (sale), which seems very unrelated.”
The league announced in December it was taking over the Panthers’ investigation after Sports Illustrated reported four former team employees received “significant” financial settlements as a result of inappropriate sexual comments and conduct by Richardson, who also reportedly directed a racial slur at a former African American scout.
The NFL hired White in January to head the investigation. The former Securities and Exchange Commission chair also led the investigation of the Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and league officials have said little about the investigation. At the owners meetings in March, Goodell said he hadn’t spoken to White in a month.
One of the employees who received a settlement from the Panthers called the investigation “a farce” last month in a series of letters she wrote for SI.
The ex-employee — who was not identified — said she was willing to cooperate with White. But the woman’s attorney was told by White that neither White nor the league could protect her if she breached her nondisclosure agreement that was part of the financial settlement she received as a result of her claims.
The woman also claims Richardson’s personal attorneys informed her lawyer that Richardson had no “intention of turning over any information of signed NDAs” to the league, and she was warned she would be in violation of the NDAs if she provided information to investigators, according to the SI report.
Goodell said in March he would make the findings public as soon the league received them. The league could fine the Panthers and strip them of draft picks, which were among the penalties handed down for “Bountygate” in New Orleans.
Experts say Tepper could include a provision in his contract requiring Richardson to address any post-sale liabilities.
Brandt, the former Packers’ vice president who writes a column for SI’s MMQB, said he’s not surprised the investigation of Richardson has dragged on for five months.
“Anyone that’s followed the NFL, whether it’s Tom Brady or Ezekiel Elliott, knows how long these things can take,” Brandt said.
And while some critics have questioned the league for continuing its investigation of Richardson after he announced he was selling the team, Brandt believes the league should see it through.
“This is not an issue that’s (swept) under the rug because of a sale,” he said. “There are other people that may be disappointed upon whatever the resolution is if it’s not strong enough, the same way people are disappointed they’re even continuing it.
"I guess you're never going to please everyone.”