Carolina Panthers founder Jerry Richardson is on his way out, but the investigation of workplace misconduct allegations against him remains a major issue that's largely unaddressed by NFL owners.
The league's spring meeting in Atlanta — which Commissioner Roger Goodell called "unusually busy and productive" — included a unanimous approval of hedge fund manager David Tepper as the next Panthers owner and the adoption of a new national anthem conduct policy.
The status of the ongoing four-month-long investigation remains unclear, however. Goodell didn't directly respond to questions about the investigation and the alleged victims when addressing the media, either.
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Richardson was in the room for the vote Tuesday and shared a tearful embrace with Goodell afterward. As expected, he didn't appear before the media. He slipped out a back entrance of the Whitley Hotel to avoid reporters.
Handling the investigation is Mary Jo White, the former chair of the Securities Exchange Commission hired by the league in January. Speaking to the media Wednesday, Goodell said White is highly respected and dismissed the characterization of the investigation as a farce.
"She would not be involved with anything that is a farce," Goodell said.
He added that White has the policies and procedures in place to allow her to do her job. But he didn't address whether any of the former Panthers employees who have financial settlements with Richardson would be offered protection for breaking their non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
"Once she’s completed her job, then we’ll take it from there," Goodell said of White. He did not say what kind of penalties the league will administer, if any, now that Richardson is out.
Experts have said that the investigation should not get "brushed under the rug" just because the team has a new owner.
Richardson, 81, announced his plans to sell the team at the conclusion of the 2018 season, on the same day Sports Illustrated published a story about that included allegations of sexual and racial misconduct against him. At least four former employees received “significant” financial settlements as a result of Richardson's behavior, according to the report.
Richardson has not commented on the investigation since it began. The Panthers did not respond to a request for comment from COO Tina Becker.
In April, one of the former Panthers employees who says she was sexually harassed by Richardson called the NFL’s investigation of Richardson “a farce” in a series of open letters she wrote that Sports Illustrated published. The employee expressed interest in talking to White but said in the story that the league refused to protect her if she broke her NDA.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said he considers Richardson a "great friend and colleague," skirted questions about the investigation of him, too.
“I can’t speak to allegations against anybody. I don’t know firsthand about those allegations. I know that Jerry certainly wants to have the best resolution," Jones said. "I wish him the best."
At the previous NFL meeting in March in Orlando, the investigation similarly went unaddressed, except for league officials suggesting that the league's report of White’s findings will not be an exhaustive account of who she interviewed regarding the allegations, or what they discussed.
Addressing reporters after other owners voted to approve him as Richardson's successor, Tepper was asked about how he would change the Panthers' front-office culture, which was created by Richardson and exacerbated by employees who protected him, according to the SI reports.
Tepper said he couldn't comment yet on what he'll do. But he did suggest that his ownership would usher in a new era.
"I’m a person that believes in equality of everybody, including men and women," Tepper said. "The past is the past."
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.