Why the NFL absolutely must investigate Jerry Richardson — even amid sale of Panthers


AP Photo/Mark Elias

Within hours of Sports Illustrated publishing its sweeping report of accusations of workplace misconduct by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the Panthers announced that Richardson is selling the team and stepping away from team activities. Despite the announcement of the voluntary sale, the NFL will go ahead with its investigation into misconduct in Carolina, and some are questioning the wisdom of that decision.

But the NFL has every right and imperative to move forward with its inquiry, especially if it suspects that the accusations against Richardson are just the tip of the iceberg.

NFL takes over investigation of Panthers owner

The league has a responsibility to determine just how deep and widespread the harassment is, and accusers have a right to be heard. What we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement this year is a domino effect in which victims feel empowered to come forward after seeing others do the same with the justification of real consequence for their abusers. It’s likely that these types of accusations don’t start and end with Richardson or the Panthers.

That said, it’s also possible that the accusations against Richardson himself don’t start and end with the details revealed in SI’s report. These include inappropriately intimate handwritten notes; comments on women employees’ bodies when they wore denim on "jeans day"; meetings with junior employees alone in his office, where he’d be barefoot, asking for a foot massage; and something known as the "seatbelt maneuver," in which, under the guise of old-school manners, he "would insist on fastening their seatbelt for them, reaching across their lap and brushing his hand across their breasts before putting the belt in the clasp," according to SI. SI also reported Richardson’s use of a racial slur toward a scout who has since left the team.

By finding out how many employees experienced those types of behavior, the NFL can get a sense of the scope of the problem and start to enact better policies to help employees find recourse. The system clearly broke down somewhere between reporting the abuse and termination of employment.

Many of these women didn’t report out of sheer need for survival, to protect their jobs and reputations. Others who did settled with Richardson out of court, signing nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements that both prevented their stories from being told and allowed further abuse to continue. The culture of Richardson as top dog in Carolina was so ingrained, as was the idea of anachronistic Southern behavior, that some employees might not even have realized that what they experienced constituted harassment.

"No one ever said anything, at least not that I heard," one former employee told SI. "He was the boss. It was [viewed] more of a creepy-old-man thing than a threat."

That’s a pretty startling glimpse into the extent to which women employees in male-dominated workplaces have learned to compartmentalize harassment. It also shows the value judgment they have to make between whether suffering at the wandering hands of your powerful boss is worse than losing your job and the possibility of being blacklisted throughout the entire industry.

In this era of reckoning with a culture of abuse and harassment, the concern shouldn’t be that more details will be published or that the investigation will cost time and money, as NBC Sports’ Mike Florio argued. It should be that we’ll finally have to face just how long we allowed this culture to persist and just how many people have been fired or kept quiet because of it.

At the very least, further investigation by the NFL gives voice to those who have as yet remained silent. Whether they result in any more legal consequence is almost immaterial; if Richardson does make good on his intent to sell, he will have already faced the highest punishment the league could have given him. But much of the healing for victims comes through the ability to tell their stories and know that people are actually listening.

While Florio and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lament Richardson’s situation, as though it were something that happened to him rather than something he stands accused of doing, he is not the victim here, no matter how many "embarrassing details" continue to trickle out. The Richardson family trust could make more than $1 billion from the sale of the Panthers, and if Jones’ comments are any indication, he’s lost neither respect nor dignity among his fellow football men.

Compare that to those women who have already accused him, and the countless others on the other 31 teams who continue to keep their harassment in the shadows. If a long and expensive NFL investigation is what it takes to draw out these victims, and to put in place better reporting measures, it will have been worth it.

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