The grimiest details in the Panthers owner’s workplace misconduct investigation
On Sunday morning, Sports Illustrated published a report exposing alleged workplace misconduct by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. Richardson’s behavior ranges from comments about women employees’ attire to asking for massages to an alleged racial slur directed towards a scout.
SI reported that Richardson has settled workplace misconduct allegations through numerous settlements in the past.
The details in the SI story, reported by L. Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein, are pretty astounding, beginning with Richardson’s behavior on ‘Jeans Day’, a Friday tradition where employees could dress casually. But Richardson used Jeans Day to routinely harass women employees:
“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?”
Yeesh. Despite the blatantly uncomfortable environment Richardson’s creepy-ass behavior was fostering, it was ignored for the most part:
“‘No one ever said anything, at least not that I heard,’ says one former Panthers employee. ‘He was the boss. It was [viewed] more of a creepy-old-man thing than a threat.'”
But, as SI reported, a long list of non-disclosure agreements and settlements between Richardson and former Panthers employees reveals more nefarious undertones of Richardson’s actions in the workplace:
“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.”
For women and Black employees at the Panthers, Richardson’s ‘aura and mannerisms’ were representative of an unsettling and antiquated, specifically Southern, attitude:
“His aura, mannerisms and values ring through the Panthers’ headquarters. Though the antebellum echoes trouble some African-American employees, Richardson is referred to by all simply as Mister, no surname required.”
Mister. In a league that has increasingly seen friction between (predominately Black) players and (completely white) owners over protests about racial inequality, having an 81-year-old Southern white guy go by Mister in the workplace seems wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate.
The SI piece went on to describe how ‘Mister’s’ behavior went totally unquestioned for the most part, with the team even erecting a massive statue of the owner last year:
“When Mister swings by and asks you to lunch, you accept the invitation even if you’ve already eaten. When he confuses your name, you don’t correct him. When the Panthers hold staff meetings, you know to arrive early—punctuality is a core Richardson virtue—and sit as close as possible to Mister’s position, a bar stool and high-top in the middle of the room. Even before you park your car in the lot, you feel Mister’s towering presence: On the occasion of Richardson’s 80th birthday last year, the Panthers unveiled a 13-foot statue of him outside Bank of America Stadium.”
But the public image of Richardson as a self-made fast food mogul who even played in the NFL at one point, bears in stark contrast to the Panthers owner’s pattern of harassment and questionable behavior within the office:
“Richardson’s various accusers, speaking independently, describe a strikingly similar pattern of behavior that they say created a hostile work environment. Rather than making sudden bursts of lewd comments or committing isolated lapses in decorum, Richardson worked gradually, starting with kind gestures and pleasant interactions before pivoting to inappropriately intimate behavior. ‘Looking back,’ says one former employee, ‘he was gaining our trust before doing things he shouldn’t be doing.'”
Richardson grooming Panthers employees is a classic trait of an abusive, powerful man whose behavior is beyond question. For women at the organization, Richardson would take an especially inappropriate interest in their appearance:
“Multiple female employees recall that their notes eventually came accompanied by small cash payments and encouragement to use the money to treat themselves to massages or dresses. The women would thank Richardson; when he responded with lines on the order of You won’t find another man to treat you the way I treat you, it was still viewed as flattery, if clumsily rendered, by an older man from an older era.”
That “older man from an older era” behavior became harder to deal with as Richardson’s conduct became increasingly intrusive and bizarre:
“Multiple former female employees recount that Richardson’s behavior began to feel like a violation when he spoke of their bodies. He had a special interest in female grooming, they say. He would notice when their nails were not up to his standards, and pay for them to get manicures. Multiple female employees recalled to SI that Richardson asked them if he could personally shave their legs.”
And Richardson’s actions were not limited to comments, he had an entire ‘maneuver’ that he pulled off while in a car with women that he used as an opportunity to grope passengers:
“Richardson was also known for what multiple women call the ‘seatbelt maneuver.’ He would invite female employees out to lunch, and in keeping with his reputation as a self-styled gentleman, he would open the car door for his guests. Once they were seated, however, 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.”
Black employees at the Carolina Panthers described an environment that ranged from containing ‘occasional racial overtones’ to outright racial slurs:
“But multiple former employees told SI that there were also occasional racial overtones in Richardson’s interactions with his workers. Pressed for specifics, they cite everything from Richardson’s expressed preference that black players not wear dreadlocks to an alleged request that an African-American employee apply sunblock to Richardson’s face.”
A former Panthers scout, who is Black, negotiated a confidential settlement with Richardson over an apparent racial slur directed his way by the Panthers owner:
“Perceptions of casual racism hardened recently when, multiple sources told SI, Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American scout for the Panthers. The scout left the team this year—but not, according to sources, before he sought the counsel of a Charlotte attorney who negotiated a confidential settlement on his behalf. Contacted by SI and asked if he wished to comment, the scout responded, ‘I’m not in a position to talk.'”
Richardson’s chain Denny’s, owned by his larger corporation Flagstar, was the subject of numerous racial lawsuits in the early 90s. In 1994, Flagstar paid more than $54 million in settlement lawsuits to thousands of Black patrons.
This whole thing is gross. It’s clear that the richest and most powerful men in industries across the cultural spectrum are in for a continued reckoning for workplace misconduct.
In wake of SI’s piece, Richardson is now looking to sell the team. Sell this squad to Diddy. That’s the only way to rectify this situation.