The post-Weinstein sexual-harassment reckoning reached the NFL this weekend, culminating in Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announcing that he will sell the franchise he founded at the end of the season.
The response to allegations against Richardson — one of the NFL’s most powerful owners and the only current owner who’s played in the league — moved with astonishing speed. On Friday the Panthers announced that they had hired attorneys to investigate allegations against the organization’s 81-year-old founder. The NFL took over that investigation on Sunday, and hours later Richardson said he would put the team up for sale, without saying why or admitting any wrongdoing.
“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.”
It appears the moves by Richardson and the NFL were an attempt to preempt the fallout from a Sports Illustrated investigation, which was published on Sunday. According to the report, at least four former Panthers employees received significant settlements after accusing Richardson of workplace misconduct, mostly involving sexual harassment of female employees. One African-American scout for the Panthers reportedly received a settlement after Richardson used a racial slur against him.
The settlements were accompanied by nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses which prevent the former employees from speaking publicly. However, multiple sources told Sports Illustrated that Richardson was known to ask female employees to turn so he could admire their butts, comment on their grooming habits, and ask to personally shave their legs. One former female employee said Richardson summoned her to his office and asked for a foot rub. Other women said he gave them back massages that strayed too low, or performed the “seatbelt maneuver,” insisting on buckling them into the passenger seat of his car as an excuse to brush against their breasts.
Though Richardson’s announcement makes things easier for the Panthers and the NFL, the report still raises a number of legal issues. The Panthers’ investigation was being overseen by former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who is a minority owner in the team. The Panthers would have been paying the legal fees of their supposedly independent investigators, and attorney-client privilege likely applied. The NFL had said it expected to retain outside counsel, but now it’s unclear if that investigation will proceed.
After several players were accused of domestic violence three years ago, the NFL updated its personal conduct policy to apply to all league personnel. That means owners can be disciplined or even lose their teams for behavior “detrimental to the league.” Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann notes that even if the league decides Richardson selling the team is sufficient, other Panthers employees could face disciplinary measures:
If team officials are implicated as facilitating or failing to stop Richardson’s alleged misconduct, Goodell could punish those officials. He could also conclude that the Panthers as a franchise warrant discipline in the form of a fine or forfeited draft picks.
In an extreme case of misconduct, the NFL could move to suspend or terminate Richardson’s ownership in the Panthers. Under Article VIII of the NFL constitution, Goodell can issue charges against an owner on grounds that the owner is guilty of conduct detrimental to the league. Owners would discuss those charges and their accompanying evidence in a trial-like hearing. A minimum of 23 of the remaining 31 NFL ownership groups would need to sustain the charges and accompanying punishment in order for Richardson’s ownership of the Panthers to be suspended or terminated.
The Buffalo Bills were the last NFL team to be sold, going for $1.4 billion in 2014. Since the Panthers are more successful and own their stadium, they might be worth nearly twice that amount. There are already some famous names throwing their hats in the ring.
Despite the NFL’s apparent damage-control efforts, things could get ugly. On Instagram, Diddy promised to consider hiring Colin Kaepernick, who sparked the NFL’s feud with President Trump and filed a complaint accusing team owners of conspiring to keep him out of the league for his protests against racial injustice.