It’s been almost 48 hours since news came that the Carolina Panthers were going to open an investigation into team owner Jerry Richardson for inappropriate workplace behavior, and now we know that the NFL will helm that investigation instead.
On Sunday, Sports Illustrated published a report by L. Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein detailing behavior of both a sexual and racial nature by Richardson against employees in the Panthers’ offices.
According to Sports Illustrated, “at least four former Panthers employees have received ‘significant’ monetary settlements due to inappropriate workplace comments and conduct” by Richardson, and on at least one occasion, the 81-year-old directed a racial slur at a black Carolina scout.
The settlements, as often happens, came with non-disclosure agreements that forbid the individuals from discussing the details publicly; the Panthers’ response to a request for comment by Sports Illustrated was to reiterate their Friday statement.
The opening paragraph of Wertheim and Bernstein’s story details “Jeans Day,” when employees in the team offices were allowed to wear denim; on Jeans Day, it became Richardson’s custom to ask female employees to turn around so he could check out their backsides and recycle tired one-liners like, “Show me how you wiggle to get those jeans up.”
Multiple former team employees said Richardson’s leering was treated as something of a running joke, but no one ever said anything.
“He was the boss,” one former employee said. “It was [viewed as] more of a creepy-old-man thing than a threat.”
Sports Illustrated viewed one of the legal documents signed by a former employee, who was essentially paid off to remain silent; indeed, no public documents or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings were found linking Richardson to such workplace behaviors. But one former employee told SI that while she worked for the club, she personally saw documents detailing sexual harassment claims against Richardson that were being investigated in-house.
Those who accuse Richardson of sexual harassment all described a similar pattern of behavior: Richardson began with small, kind gestures – a handwritten note (he eschewed email for years), which would prompt a handwritten response from the recipient; multiple women recalled that subsequent notes would include small cash payments, with Richardson encouraging them to use it on a massage or new dress.
When the women thanked Richardson, whom everyone in the Panthers’ offices calls “Mister,” he would respond by telling them something like, “You won’t find another man to treat you the way I treat you.”
But over time, multiple female former employees said, Richardson’s behavior would cross the line: several said that Richardson asked them if he could personally shave their legs.
Other times, sources told SI, Richardson would request that female employees meet with him on a workday in his suite at Bank of America Stadium; his assistant would bring the employee to the suite and then leave. One female former employee recalled Richardson standing barefoot and requesting a foot rub; others said he would offer them back rubs that went too long or went too low.
There was also his “seatbelt maneuver,” when Richardson would invite a female employee to lunch out of the building, open her door for her, and then insist on reaching across to buckle her seatbelt for her, brushing her breasts in the process.
“You look back and it’s wackadoo,” one former Panthers employee said. “You felt preyed upon. You felt fear. You felt self-doubt. But when you’re in [that environment], everywhere you go, every family gathering, it’s, ‘Oh, you work in the NFL? That’s so cool.’ And you don’t want to lose your job.”
And while outwardly Richardson seems to be a champion of diversity – the team’s head coach, Ron Rivera, is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, the team’s franchise quarterback, Cam Newton, is black, and Tina Becker, a woman who was once the team’s manager of cheerleader and mascot programs, has risen up the ladder to become, essentially, the Panthers’ de facto president – behind the scenes, sources told SI, tells a different story.
Richardson reportedly directed a racial slur at an African-American scout for the team; the scout left the team this year, but according to sources before leaving he sought the aid of an attorney in Charlotte, who negotiated a confidential settlement for the scout. The scout declined to comment when contacted by SI.
Others said Richardson has an expressed preference that black players not wear dreadlocks to an alleged request that a black employee apply sunblock to Richardson’s face. After drafting Newton in 2011, the owner asked the player, “Did you get crazy after the draft and go out and get any tattoos or piercings? Do I have to check you for anything?”
This season, some Panthers players were frustrated when Richardson indicated that players who addressed social issues could be punished.
Before owning the Panthers, Richardson was CEO of Flagstar Inc., which owned numerous fast-food franchises; the company was the subject of multiple bias lawsuits brought by the U.S. Department of Justice. On the same day in 1993, Flagstar was found guilty of making black patrons at a Denny’s restaurant it owned pre-pay and segregated black patrons, and at a separate Denny’s in Maryland of refusing service to several black Secret Service agents after seating their white colleagues.
In 1994, Flagstar paid more than $54 million to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of African-American customers; four years later, the company changed its name to Advantica Restaurant Group Inc.