After I stopped writing a full-time sports column for the Charlotte Observer in 2015, I accepted an offer to watch a game from the suite of Carolina Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson. That suite at Bank of America Stadium, like his team’s offices at Bank of America Stadium, moved to his beat. The pace was orderly, his guests and business associates respectful, and between steady sips of sweet tea, Richardson was gracious.
I don’t think I saw Richardson smile. Even when, as is customary, a Krispy Kreme doughnut the size of an inner tube was placed in front of him, he didn’t smile. During the game, fans in the bleachers beneath him screamed and players on the grass beneath the fans celebrated. But in the suite, stoicism prevailed.
Not long before the Panthers and Green Bay Packers played last Sunday, Sports Illustrated broke a devastating story about Richardson, 81. In it are allegations about a Panthers culture – Richardson’s culture – that degrades women and minorities. As kickoff approached, you could almost feel fans look first at their phones and then at Richardson and then at the field.
Richardson sat emotionless in his suite the same as he always has, and everybody could see him. So why, on this day, would he subject himself to scrutiny he despises?
Did Richardson know then that he’d put the team up for sale and cede day-to-day control of the team to Tina Becker? He knew, at least, that the story was coming. He probably knew for months that it was simmering.
But where else on this day would Richardson go? His world is crumbling, and if the allegations are true, the fault is all his. Was he going to stay home? At least for a few hours in that suite, he was still Jerry Richardson, respected and revered.
I know Richardson. I like him. I’ve met his family and he’s met mine. My older son was a line chef at Upstream, and Richardson walked into the kitchen (I wasn’t there) and asked, “Which one of you is Sorensen’s kid?”
That would be the one whose face just turned crimson. Richardson stood behind him, used his big hands to rub his shoulders and laughed. It’s a little thing. But Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones probably wouldn’t have done it.
The image Richardson likes to portray – calm, strong, composed – doesn’t always hold. At a restaurant early one afternoon, Richardson talked at length about an issue. I thought he overreacted to the issue, and he thought I failed to grasp its significance. He blew up. I mean, he swore at me and the anger was so vivid it all but lingered above the table.
When the anger dissipated, Richardson apologized several times, too many times. I told him he didn’t need to; I thought he was wrong about the issue, and I didn’t care about the anger. The anger was real.
Richardson orders (or did) his world. He cares deeply about how he’s perceived. How often have you seen him outwardly angry? How often have you seen him lose control? How often have you seen him drink in public? (You haven’t.)
Years ago Richardson complained to me about the way a local television reporter talked about him. I didn’t know who the reporter was. Yet Richardson was livid because he thought the man was unfair.
“Why do you care?”
“Because I do!” he said.
I drive a convertible, and a friend of Richardson’s bought one. I told the friend he ought to talk Richardson into buying one.
“He won’t,” the friend said.
“It will mess up his hair.”
I once asked Richardson how his wife, Rosalind, was doing. I called her Roz, as in, “How’s Roz doing?”
Richardson paused, stood tall, looked down at me and said, “Mrs. Richardson is doing well.”
Remember in 2014 when defensive end Greg Hardy, who later would be run out of the league after charges of domestic violence, played one game for the Panthers and suited up for the second? He was yanked off the field before the game began. Many believed the NFL made the call.
According to sources, it was Richardson who angrily pulled Hardy. He would not play for Carolina again.
In the Sports Illustrated story there are allegations that make you want to say, “Ugh.” Such as: Richardson rubbing against women who work for him when, after opening a car door, he fastens their seat belt; offering to shave a woman’s legs; giving back rubs that assume a broad definition of “back.”
If Richardson knew that the women who worked for him felt this way, I’d think the perception would shame him. But how could he not know?
Richardson comes from a different time. There was a time when behavior such as, say, slapping a woman employee on the butt or squeezing her tight at the private party in the bar down the street was, if not acceptable, at least tolerated. You were a guy and in this case a guy who paid salaries and, heck, you didn’t mean anything by it.
That time ended not years but decades ago. Maybe the behavior is addictive, and maybe you can order your world in such a way that complaints are minimal.
When those complaints arise, perhaps you can, according to the Sports Illustrated story, cut a deal with those who complain. This piece of paper promises you’ll let the issue drop. Sign it and we will pay you. No harm, no foul.
Richardson has done a lot for Charlotte and for his school, Wofford, and for the Carolinas. I’ve seen him approach strangers – female and male – and begin a conversation. When he leaves, they act as if they’ve won something.
Richardson hoped his legacy would include a Super Bowl victory and dignity.
He still has a shot at one of them.