You have got to be kidding me.
In the final answer of his otherwise charming first press conference as the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper said Tuesday he is “contractually obligated” to keep the 13-foot statue of former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson exactly where it stands outside the north gate of the stadium.
So Richardson turned out to have one final surprise in store for fans: A going-away present that means he will never quite go away at all.
The statue stays — Richardson insisted on it during negotiations. And because of that insistence, Richardson will remain in all his suited “glory” between two snarling black Panthers that are supposed to represent North and South Carolina.
I have been among the many who have campaigned to have the Richardson statue moved out of public view owing to the former owner’s multiple instances of workplace misconduct that recently earned him a $2.75-million fine from the NFL — nearly triple the amount any other team or individual has been fined for any reason.
But no. Tepper dropped this news bombshell during the final question of his news conference — I had been trying to ask it for the entire half hour but only was called on at that moment. Here was the exact question and answer.
My question: “There’s a 13-foot statue of Jerry Richardson outside the north gate. Do you plan to leave that as is or move it?”
Tepper’s answer: “Um … I’m contractually obligated to keep that statue as it is.”
The press conference was quickly stopped at that point — it had already been made clear this was the final question — so there was no opportunity for follow-ups.
At first glance, you might think Tepper got rooked. Richardson, who turns 82 this month, gets to shine up his legacy for every home game in front of tens of thousands of fans at the expense of Tepper’s “That was then, this is now” philosophy.
But as I think about it more, Tepper certainly did not make $11 billion by being an inexperienced businessman willing to agree with anything he doesn’t want to. That self-deprecating wit he has hides a very high-level mind. And he and his people may well believe that this “contractually obligated” phrase gets them out of a no-win situation.
Why? Here's one example. Every time I write about the statue and my belief it should be taken down, my email and social media runs almost exactly 50-50 between “You are absolutely right; Richardson’s actions toward his female employees were creepy and he shouldn’t be celebrated publicly” and “You are absolutely wrong — Richardson brought the NFL to the Carolinas. Leave the man alone.”
This way Tepper doesn’t really alienate either side. He’s got an excuse for not taking down the statue, even if he wanted to do so. If he didn't want to do so, he's got an excuse for that, too.
The whole thing doesn’t pass the smell test with me. The Richardson statue has outlived its usefulness. It is an unnecessary piece of controversy for the new Panthers administration, which Tepper otherwise got off to a roaring start Tuesday by being more transparent about his plans in 30 minutes (he wants new practice fields; he wants high school football games at Bank of America Stadium; he quoted Spider-Man about great power and great responsibility; he's got big plans for future development) than Richardson was over the past 15 years combined.
Let's also remember how the idea of the statue was originally presented. In the summer of 2016, the statue was given to Richardson and his family by his minority Panthers partners on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It was stressed at the time that Richardson knew nothing of the statue's existence until shortly before it was revealed, which made sense as it would have been rather emperor-esque for Richardson to have commissioned a statue of himself.
Yet Richardson won't take the statue home with him now that he's left the building. It's as if you were thrown a surprise birthday party at your house, and two years later you sold that house. But as for that carefully sculpted white elephant of a gift you received, you just left it there smack in the middle of the front yard. In fact, you drew up a contract to make sure they couldn't put the gift in the attic. It had to stay in the front yard where everyone could see it.
It doesn’t matter a bit whether I like all this or not, of course. The statue decision has been made. It's going to stick around. I suppose I could see everyone agreeing to move it into some sort of Panthers hall of fame or museum once that is eventually built — surely that will be coming somewhere down the line, and it should be. But that still means the statue will be front and center in perpetuity.
Can I offer one more piece of advice, though?
The statue portrays Richardson holding out a football. Given Richardson's incredible success with contracts — from those infamous nondisclosure agreements with former employees first reported by Sports Illustrated that kept the Friday “Jeans Day” fashion shows and other similar items under wraps for years — let’s just get a sculptor to modify the Richardson statue a little.
First, hack off that football in Richardson's left hand.
Then replace it instead with Richardson holding out a contract and a pen.
Because after all this, Richardson’s legacy can be neatly summed up in two words: