By maintaining his customary silence in the face of allegations of sexual and racial misconduct, the Panthers owner is unfairly leaving his players and staff to answer for him. The situation will only get worse if Carolina advances deep into the playoffs
Jerry Richardson has held one press conference in a dozen years. He’s granted a handful of interviews in the past five or so years to some of his preferred reporters, but that’s all.
He took no questions here in Charlotte four years ago when he wanted $87.5 million in taxpayer money for renovations to his stadium, in exchange for a six-year tether to the city. In fact, even the meeting with the city council was closed to the public. From serious events such as Greg Hardy being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list for his domestic violence conviction to celebratory issues like Cam Newton becoming the highest-paid player in franchise history, to the strange firing of successful general manager Dave Gettleman just before the start of training camp, Richardson has not made himself available.
And so it came as no surprise to anyone who’s paid attention locally that Richardson did not address the details of SI’s report two weeks ago involving at least four alleged payments to former Panthers employees over alleged sexual and racial workplace misconduct by the team’s owner. The five-paragraph statement released on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 17, announcing that he was selling his greatest business venture—Richardson turned a $206 million investment in the early 1990s into a $2 billion-plus behemoth—made no mention of the bombshell report published seven hours earlier, or the investigation that had been initiated the previous Friday.
What’s that’s meant is that everyone else around the Panthers has had to answer for Richardson, an impossible spot for any employee, friend or associate anywhere, and especially difficult in this case.
If you take inventory of the men implicated in the MeToo movement, the majority have issued some type of statement: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, Israel Horovitz and more. Their statements may have been bad or hollow or insensitive, but they were made. They were tangible words that people could assign to these men and draw their own conclusions from.
This is not to give these men any credit for speaking. But by saying something, they at least relieved the burden on those innocent people close to them, so that others do not have to answer for their friend or relative’s misdeeds.
In the absence of a statement by Jerry Richardson, you have no words to assign to him. What does he have to say about these allegations? What does he believe? The public—the same public who trusted (and may still trust) Richardson, whose tax money he has received—does not know, and thus it turns to those close to him for answers.
As the story loomed, coach Ron Rivera’s idea for his players to speak only about their personal knowledge and relationship with Richardson made sense. They knew the story was coming but didn’t know the details (especially after the SI story dropped minutes before kickoff in Week 15) and wouldn’t be in a position to talk intelligently about it.
But more and more, Panthers players are being hung out to dry, left to answer somehow for their boss’s alleged misdeeds. Newton, while saying he takes sexual assault allegations very seriously, said these are “just allegations” and related them back to the pay-for-play scheme he was embroiled in with the NCAA in 2010. Linebacker Luke Kuechly said it would be fitting for the Panthers to send Richardson out with a Super Bowl victory.
And after Sunday’s win against Tampa Bay, Rivera broke down the postgame huddle with this:
“Everything we do is about team. The most important thing is about team, OK? All right, do me a favor… ‘Mr. Richardson’ on three. 1-2-3!”
The players shouted back: “Mr. Richardson!”
In that moment, everyone now became ensnared in the story. Football is the ultimate team game, so how could an individual abstain in that moment if he wished? Did everyone in that room want to win for Richardson? Is everyone comfortable with what they’ve read? Has everyone had a full reckoning of the allegations, compared to their experiences with the owner?
The Panthers are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. There are other stories in the NFL, but by Monday they’ll be one of 12 shows left. The further they go in the postseason, the more closely they will be examined. More national media will descend on Charlotte, scribes and such who have not yet asked about the Richardson investigation but surely have concocted their own pertinent question that they’re confident will get the best and most unique response. FOX will ask for more sit-downs with the team’s top players to discuss the upcoming game and the controversy around the team.
What will happen if Carolina makes its second Super Bowl in three years, and there are two weeks’ worth of media scrutiny to discuss everything under the sun regarding Richardson, from every reporter under the sun?
How would you answer for your boss’s alleged behavior, in rooms you never visited?
When the player protests came to a peak in Week 3 of this season, I said I respected Jerry Richardson for the statement he made: “Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself.” It was not that I agreed with his stance on protesting. I absolutely did not. But he didn’t issue some mealy-mouthed comment that played both sides. He made it clear that he did not like the protests. His statement offered a reason why the Panthers players—especially the black ones—had their hands tied before that Week 3 game.
For the sake of his employees, his players and those close to him, the only fair thing for Richardson to do is speak up again, and tell us how he really feels.
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