Personal fouls: Panthers owner to sack himself

Will Jerry Richardson’s loss be P. Diddy’s … even bigger loss? The owner of the Carolina Panthers announced last night that he would sell the team after a Sports Illustrated report uncovered at least four settlements involving sexual harassment and other complaints at the NFL franchise. The allegations echo some familiar tropes from recent sexual misconduct scandals, such as inappropriate comments on body parts, requests for massages, as well as a new wrinkle — offers to shave the legs of female employees.

And don’t even ask about “Jeans Day”:

Friday was Jeans Day, when most staffers at the Carolina Panthers team offices would wear denim to work. The female employees knew what that meant. As the team’s owner, Jerry Richardson, made his rounds on the way to his spacious office, he would ask women to turn around so he could admire their backsides. Then, in his rolling Southern drawl, he’d offer comment, drawing from a store of one-liners he’d recycle each week. Among those in heaviest rotation: Show me how you wiggle to get those jeans up. I bet you had to lay down on your bed to fit into those jeans. Did you step into those jeans or did you have to jump into them? …

But to other Panthers employees, Richardson’s behavior on Jeans Day was consistent with a broader pattern of disturbing—and potentially actionable—office behavior. On Friday evening, the Panthers announced that they had commenced an internal investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against Richardson, to be led by the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan LLP and overseen by former White House Chief of Staff and Panthers minority owner Erskine Bowles. On Sunday morning the NFL announced it was taking over the investigation.

During its own investigation in the weeks prior, SI learned that on multiple occasions when Richardson’s conduct has triggered complaints—for sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African American employee—he has taken a leaf from a playbook he’s deployed in the past: Confidential settlements were reached and payments were made to complainants, accompanied by non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses designed to shield the owner and the organization from further liability and damaging publicity.

SI has been made aware of at least four former Panthers employees who have received significant settlements from Richardson or from the team in exchange for what amounted to a vow of silence. One of the deals was confirmed by a recipient’s significant other, who had contemporaneous knowledge of Richardson’s conduct. On the condition that no potentially identifying details (such as dates or dollar figures) be revealed in this story, SI viewed the physical legal document—which included what appears to be Richardson’s signature—for one such settlement. No public documents or EEOC complaints have been found linking Richardson to workplace abuses, but a former Panthers employee tells SI that, while working for the team, she personally saw documents detailing sexual harassment claims against Richardson that were being investigated by the Panthers.

Yesterday, after the NFL announced that they would take over the probe from Richardson, the man who brought the NFL to Charlotte threw in the towel:

“I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership,” Richardson said. “Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season. We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played. I hope everyone in this organization, both on and off the field, will be firmly focused on just one mission: to play and win the Super Bowl.”

Richardson called football “an integral part of my life” but did not address the accusations against him in his statement.

The NFL said earlier Sunday that it had taken over the investigation, which the Panthers originally announced Friday. The NFL said through a spokesman that it will conduct the investigation and expects to retain outside counsel, but declined further comment.

Why sell ahead of the investigation? As the ESPN report above notes, everyone knows where this is going. Richardson’s decision to sell might reduce some of the embarrassment ahead for the 81-year-old billionaire. It’s not going to eliminate it, but it won’t drag it out interminably, either. However, this might end up being easier on Richardson than on the colleagues he leaves behind. He’s hardly the only elderly old-school tycoon in the NFL owners’ boxes, and one has to wonder how many others thought it was amusing and even “courtly” to comment on the physical attributes of their female employees.

Richardson seems to be selling at a poor time, though. Ratings are down in the NFL due to a number of issues — competition from other entertainment, the fallout from the concussion issue, and especially fan reaction to the national anthem protests. Who’d want to spend big bucks to buy into the NFL owners’ club? Entertainment mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs announced his interest on Instagram last night, and his first action would be to sign Colin Kaepernick to compete for the starting QB job:

“I would be the best NFL owner you could imagine. I will immediately address the Colin Kaepernick situation, and put him in the running for next year’s starting quarterback. It’s just competition baby, it’s just competition.”

Former league MVP Cam Newton is the team’s current quarterback.

Er … how exactly would that work, anyway? Newton is currently leading the Panthers to the playoffs, and has a contract that pays out at least through the 2018 season, where Diddy would be paying Cam a cool $14.5 million to … do what, exactly? Sit and watch Kaepernick play? Kaepernick is a good prospect for a backup for a team with a strong QB like Newton, but Kaepernick made it clear he’s not interested in sitting on the bench. Why would Newton blithely sit by while ownership rewards this playoff run with a challenge to his standing with the team?

Combs could probably pull off an ownership bid, although with an estimated net worth of only (!) $820 million, he’d need other investors to get enough cash to buy an NFL team. Will other investors want to put money behind Kaepernick? Doubtful, especially given the revenue outlook for pro football. They can hire better entertainers for halftime without Combs, too.

Given the news out of the entertainment industry lately, though, don’t expect the NFL to rush into an embrace with Diddy in order to distance itself from a sexual harassment scandal, at least not until the smoke clears. At this point, the league would probably welcome corporate ownership to keep things low-key.

Addendum: Or perhaps Diddy has found his first investor: