Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said Sunday that he would sell the team at the end of the season, the announcement coming hours a report published by Sports Illustrated detailed numerous claims of sexual harassment by team employees.
The story emerged several days after the Panthers announced that Richardson, a former NFL player and fast-food titan, was under investigation for workplace misconduct. The team had hired a law firm to look into undisclosed allegations, overseen by Panthers minority owner and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. The NFL later took over the investigation.
[Agenda story: How Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got all his money]
The SI story provided graphic and deeply troubling details on actions that Richardson, 81, was reportedly known for while running the franchise. It also says that the Panthers and/or Richardson have paid several settlements over these allegations that include nondisclosure agreements.
Some Charlotteans quickly began calling for Richardson to sell the team. Richardson’s statement said that the sale process will not begin until the last game of the season is played, but does not address the allegations against him.
The report and subsequent decision to sell the team comes amid a larger movement of women speaking out about toxic behavior by powerful men in the workplace. It also lands during a perilous time for the NFL, which has been rocked by both the lasting impacts of traumatic head injuries to its players and a bitter political fight over protests during the national anthem over the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of police in the U.S.
What does the report say Jerry Richardson did?
The claims are numerous and vary in severity. Here are some of them, as reported by Sports Illustrated.
- Fridays were “Jeans Day,” and Richardson would ask female employees to show him their backside and make comments like “Show me how you wiggle to get those jeans up.”
- Richardson asked women if he could shave their legs.
- He asked junior employees for foot massages.
- Richardson allegedly gave back massages that strayed too low.
- He would insist on strapping women’s seat belts in cars and graze their breasts.
Another allegation SI reported on involves Richardson using a racial slur to refer to an African-American scout for the team.
While this plays a lesser role in the SI story, it also follows allegations of racial discrimination against the restaurant chain Denny’s while Richardson was in charge. He’s also made comments about black players’ tattoos and attire that can be interpreted as racist.
What happens now?
The decision to sell the team immediately created a defining moment for both Charlotte and the NFL. It also will mean the departure of the man who led the effort to bring an expansion NFL team to Charlotte in 1993. Richardson has been the only owner in team history.
Now speculation has already begun on who will buy the Panthers.
The obvious candidates are Marcus and Bruton Smith, who run Speedway Motorsports and own Charlotte Motor Speedway. They’ve already expressed interest in buying the Panthers, and had recently tried to win a Major League Soccer franchise for Charlotte.
Other potential local buyers would be the Levine family (prominent Charlotte developers) or the Belks, who sold their eponymous department store chain to a private equity firm in 2015 for $3 billion. Perhaps Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets, could be interested, as well.
The Panthers were recently valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion.
Of course, a local buyer is far from guaranteed. The music mogul Diddy expressed interest in buying the Panthers on Twitter late Sunday.
There is also no guarantee that a new owner would keep the Panthers in Charlotte. This fear has reared its head before, most recently when Richardson negotiated for public money to upgrade Bank of America Stadium. The agreement to invest tax dollars came with a short-term tether keeping the team in Charlotte.
Speculation on a new buyer is also nothing new. The Panthers are required to be sold within two years after Richardson’s death. He had a heart transplant in 2009.
The future of the giant Richardson statue outside Bank of America Stadium is unclear.
The decision also likely spares the NFL from making a difficult decision on how to respond. The league has faced criticism for how it handles discipline — though it has not recently handled a matter like this. In 2014, the NFL’s suspension of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice after video surfaced of him punching his fiancee unconscious became a debacle. The NFL would have found itself in a precarious position on what it’s legally able to do when it comes to a team owner, and it’s also possible for allegations to surface against more NFL team owners in the coming weeks.
Richardson attended Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers in his customary seat in the owner’s box. It is unclear whether he will attend any more games this season.