If you care about the NFL, the first round of the NFL draft usually feels a little like Christmas in April.
But it didn’t feel like that Thursday afternoon, and that had nothing to do with what the Carolina Panthers were planning to do in their draft room a few hours later. It had everything to do, however, with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, another round of sexual harassment allegations from Sports Illustrated and an explosive accusation that the ongoing NFL investigation of Richardson is a “farce.”
So it was hard to enjoy the run-up to the draft, because there was this vague sense of creepiness emanating from Bank of America Stadium. When the hometown team and a cadre of loyal employees has allegedly coddled, protected and cleaned up the messes of its 81-year-old owner for so many years, whether the Panthers pick a wide receiver or a cornerback in the first round doesn’t seem so important anymore.
And here’s the thing that may be the most disconcerting: We may never really know exactly what Richardson did. Not even close.
That’s because — according to this Sports Illustrated report based on a series of letters written by a former female Panthers employee who alleges she was sexually harassed multiple times by Richardson — the NFL probe has no real power.
The unnamed former Panthers employee wrote in Sports Illustrated that she wants to talk to lead investigator Mary Jo White, but has not been able to because the employee signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of a financial settlement paid to her.
'You have zero power'
That money would be at risk, the employee wrote, if she broke the NDA without assurances from White of protection.
“My attorney spoke with Mary Jo White to let her know that I was willing to cooperate with the investigation that you had given to her,” the former employee wrote. “Ms. White said she would like to hear my truth, but neither she nor you could protect me from the penalties of breaching my NDA. What?
I wonder if the NFL — which has not given any indication as to when the White report will come, or what it will say — really does want to get to the bottom of this. Or is this like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” screaming: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Does the NFL really want to handle the truth?
Do the Panthers?
Or would that simply be “bad for your business,” as the former employee alleges?
The sounds of silence
This much is objectively true: It wouldn’t be good for the NFL’s business if stories similar to this one about Richardson popped up around the league. And do you really think that Charlotte is the only place this has ever happened — in a testosterone-fueled, male-dominated league where, yes, women do get on the field, but mostly as cheerleaders?
Oh, but wait, you might say, the Panthers employ Tina Becker as their chief operating officer! She makes all sorts of important decisions!
The Panthers issued another press release Thursday to respond to the latest round of SI allegations and featured Becker prominently in it. They once again talked about how Becker in December “immediately began working toward addressing the issues” and how the Panthers have “restructured executive responsibilities and added a comprehensive training program on harassment and diversity and inclusion issues.”
Maybe so, but the Panthers have never made Becker available to non-team media — not once in four months! — to actually answer questions about how she is working on “addressing the issues.”
It’s just one vague-sounding statement after another, with Becker deep in the shadows. Becker does actually exist — I have actually seen her once or twice — but the Panthers have done her no favors with their radio-silence approach. It seems like even when a woman is in a position of obvious power with the Panthers, as Becker is, the sounds of silence do not change. Her voice could be a powerful one here, but we have not heard it.
No apology, no explanation
The Panthers aren’t doing themselves any favors, either. In terms of the specific allegations leveled — the most damning of these latest ones included Richardson’s suggestive handwritten notes to the former female employee about pampering, lip gloss, lotion, shaved legs and other cringe-worthy items — there has been no apology.
No explanation. No nothing.
Before long there will be no more Richardson at the helm of the operation, either. The Panthers are on the verge of being sold — reportedly for around $2.5 billion, the highest price ever paid for a U.S. pro sports franchise. So Richardson — who announced he was going to sell the team in December, only hours after the first SI story broke — at least sped up his timetable for selling.
But Richardson will leave with the ultimate golden parachute, and he may never be held accountable for what he allegedly did.
Because what is the NFL’s motivation for doing the right thing and figuring out a way to investigate these allegations thoroughly? I’m not sure what it is, really — except for the fact that it would be right thing to do.
That, however, is often not enough in life.
Show us something, NFL.
Show us something, Panthers.
Make us believe you really are taking all this seriously.
Because right now, it’s pretty hard to believe.