Scott Fowler

Jerry Richardson’s final act as Panthers owner should honor what he owes Carolinas

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has one last chance to salvage a piece of his legacy.

He must sell the team to an ownership group that will keep it in Charlotte.

On one of the more extraordinary days in Panthers history Sunday, Carolina edged the Green Bay Packers 31-24 in a shootout at Bank of America Stadium. And yet the game was a distant third in terms of news value.

Items No. 1 and 2, in chronological order: Sports Illustrated published an explosive story that alleged all sorts of workplace misconduct by Richardson, the Panthers’ 81-year-old owner. Those allegations included sexual harassment, a racial slur and the owner asking some of his female employees if he could “personally shave their legs.”

And then, about seven hours after that report, Richardson suddenly announced he is selling the Panthers. He made no mention of the allegations, acting as if the timing of this blockbuster announcement was merely coincidental.

“I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership,” Richardson said in a five-paragraph statement released by the Panthers Sunday night. “Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season. We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, open up your bank statements and take a look to see if you qualify. On second thought, forget that: If you have to look, you’re not going to be in the running. Forbes magazine recently valued the Panthers at $2.3 billion.

Ideally, Richardson will sell the team to a local ownership group – maybe some of his minority partners will even buy him out. And there certainly are other rich people in the Carolinas – not many, but a handful – who have the sort of money to write that check.

But if Richardson doesn’t sell to some locals, he absolutely must go to great lengths to ensure that the Panthers stay in Charlotte.

Billionaires everywhere can apply, but Richardson should choose a group that will keep the Panthers exactly where they are – in an open-air stadium that always sells out, in large part because of permanent seat-license owners who were sold by the idea that permanent actually means permanent and not “we’ll keep the team here for 25 years and then move it somewhere else.”

Richardson owes Panthers fans at least that much.

The team should stay. But Richardson is certainly right about one thing – he should go.

The beginning of the end

Things moved very fast on Sunday. The Sports Illustrated story published just before 1 p.m., when the Panthers and Packers kicked off. By 3 p.m., I had written a column saying this would be “the beginning of the end of Jerry Richardson’s tenure as owner of the Carolina Panthers.” Five hours after that, Richardson was putting out the “For Sale” sign.

The sale of the team threatens to knock the story about Richardson’s alleged workplace misconduct out of the headlines, but it should not. That story has dramatic and salacious allegations from the most respected magazine in sports journalism.

It did not just dump one glass of red wine dumped on a crisp white dress shirt like the ones that Richardson favors. It dunked that same shirt into a barrel of red wine, dragged it through a dumpster and then set it afire.

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The Carolina Panthers have announced that the team – led by star quarterback Cam Newton (center) – is for sale. The announcement, a five-paragraph statement, does not mention allegations of workplace misconduct made against team owner Jerry Richardson in a Sports Illustrated story published on Sunday. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

If you haven’t read the Sports Illustrated story, it alleges:

▪  At least four former Panthers employees have received significant monetary settlements from Richardson after inappropriate behavior from the owner “in exchange for what amounted to a vow of silence.”

▪  On at least one occasion, Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.

▪  Richardson not only verbally harassed some of his female employees – especially on Fridays, which were “Jeans Day” and became fodder for many inappropriate comments by the owner – but also would sometimes request them to visit him in his suite inside Bank of America Stadium.

Richardson’s assistant would escort the women to Richardson’s office and then leave. One former female employee recalled Richardson “arriving barefoot and asking for a foot massage.” Others, said the magazine, talked about Richardson “giving back rubs that lingered too long or went too low down the spine.”

‘Let the process unfold’

There was more – including the part about how Richardson sometimes asked female employees if he “could personally shave their legs,” but you get the point. The #MeToo movement arrived in Charlotte Sunday. The shock value of the Sports Illustrated story will eventually fade, but Richardson will never be perceived exactly the same way again in the Carolinas.

But if you don’t think it could get worse: Oh yeah, it could.

Let’s say Richardson sells the team to an owner who is successful in moving it somewhere else (such a move would require approval from a majority of NFL owners, which is not an easy thing to get). But if that happened, that’s when Charlotte loses its NFL team and part of its identity, and that’s when Richardson’s name becomes a curse word in the Carolinas.

I can’t imagine he would want that. In that same statement issued by the Panthers on Sunday night, Richardson proclaimed that Bank of America Stadium is “in its best condition since the day it opened” and that the Panthers have “the best fans in football.”

The plan until recently was for Richardson to sell the team within two years after his death. Now the timetable has been sped up, and Richardson (who had a heart transplant in 2009) will likely be alive to see his baby be adopted by someone else.

‘A place of refuge’

Richardson is the only owner the Panthers have ever had, and he was the man who made the NFL believe that a franchise could succeed in the Carolinas. In the Panthers locker room Sunday after Carolina edged Green Bay, most players and coaches talked glowingly about their personal relationships with Richardson. They also carefully hedged their bets on the allegations themselves, not passing judgment on them one way or the other.

“You are guessing at this point,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ll just let the process unfold.”

Added Rivera about his personal relationship with Richardson: “I had a house fire and he was there for (Rivera’s wife) Stephanie and I. ... My brother passed (away) and Mr. Richardson was there and helped me get to the funeral and back. ... You guys know that my second year he could have easily fired me after it. He and I sat down and he gave me an opportunity to go into my third season and this is where I am today.”

Said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “Mr. Richardson has been an unbelievable source in my life. ... I have found a place of refuge with Mr. Richardson.”

But, Newton added, the allegations are “extremely serious.”

“I don’t take that lightly,” the quarterback said. “... For me, I hope (the investigation) doesn’t alter my thinking of Mr. Richardson.”

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Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, right, watches a practice in May 2017 with head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera, now in his seventh year as the Panthers’ head coach, praised the owner Sunday for not firing Rivera after his second season in 2012. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Richardson impacted my life, too, simply by breathing the Panthers into existence. Without the Panthers, there wouldn’t have been a job for me to take at The Observer in 1994. I met my wife at the newspaper. We have four children together.

It is likely he has impacted your life, too. Panthers fans owe Richardson a debt of gratitude for the team’s inception. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be angry at him for all that the Sports Illustrated story alleges. Both feelings are absolutely valid.

The next few months are going to be messy. The NFL’s investigation will continue, as will the Panthers’ season. Once it ends, there will be constant speculation about who the team’s potential buyers will be. Lots of celebrities will say they are interested because that doesn’t cost a thing.

But Richardson – soon to fade from power with the Panthers – still has one more huge decision to make. And he better get this one right.

The Panthers belong right where they are.

Keeping the team in Charlotte should be Jerry Richardson’s final act as owner.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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