In Charlotte, the Jerry Richardson scandal causes deeper tremors

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, eight, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Kevin C. Cox)

Fireworks exploded over Charlotte’s skyline, and the windows in downtown office towers were lit ablaze to spell “N-F-L” that Tuesday night in October 1993 when the league announced its 28 owners had voted to award North Carolina’s biggest city an expansion franchise.

At the beer-drenched celebration in the marble lobby of NationsBank’s 60-story skyscraper, chairman Hugh McColl Jr., a key financial strategist behind the bid, wept tears of joy for his city, supporters in both North and South Carolina, and his longtime friend and team owner Jerry Richardson.

Proclaimed Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, “It puts us in an elite class and forever and ever will set us apart from other cities.”

Less than 25 years and two Super Bowl appearances since that euphoric night, “forever and ever” feels suddenly fleeting in Charlotte.

According to a Sports Illustrated report published Sunday, the Carolina Panthers have reached significant financial settlements with at least four employees over episodes of sexual misconduct and inappropriate workplace behavior by Richardson, who is also described as making a racial slur against one of the team’s African American scouts. The NFL has stepped in to take charge of what team officials proposed as an internal investigation.

For many Panthers fans and civic leaders, no less troubling was Richardson’s announcement that he intends to sell the Panthers at season’s end, escalating his previous directive to do so within two years of his death.

The pool of buyers for an NFL team valued at $2.3 billion is small. Smaller still is the pool of buyers who would commit to keeping the team in Charlotte.

“Part of what the Panthers brought to Charlotte is that they were perceived to be a class act, and Jerry Richardson was perceived to be a class act,” said Mary Newsom, director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and a veteran journalist with deep roots in the city. “So there is shock, disappointment and a very nervous feeling about what it means for a team that brought a lot of recognition to the city. The role of the Panthers in Charlotte’s sense of itself as a city has been really important.”

Few NFL teams are as closely identified with one man as the Panthers are with Richardson, 81, a former Baltimore Colt who parlayed his 1959 NFL championship bonus into a single Hardee’s franchise in 1961 and built a food-service empire from there. The Oakland Raiders and Al Davis, the Cincinnati Bengals and Paul Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Art Rooney, and the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Hunt come to mind.

In all those cases, the team’s present-day ownership remains primarily in the hands of the late founder’s descendants. That won’t be the case with the Panthers.

After granting his two sons separate fiefdoms in the Panthers’ organization — Mark rose to team president; Jon was president of stadium operations — Richardson fired both in 2009 amid reports of squabbling between them, offering no public explanation. Jon died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer. And neither Mark nor his sister, Ashley, figure in Richardson’s succession plan.

Though the recent report and investigation appears to have accelerated his timetable, Richardson’s statement that he’ll sell the team at season’s end made no reference, or even a vague allusion, to any impropriety on his part or anything amiss with the franchise.

Transparency, humility and contrition are not hallmarks of Richardson’s personality, no different than many of his 31 fellow NFL owners.

At 6 feet 3, Jerry Richardson casts an imposing presence even after a 2009 heart transplant. Like the NFL’s best players, he knows how to use his size to his advantage: to convey authority and command, to intimidate as needed. In dark suit and tie, with a full shock of white hair and upright posture, he exudes a patrician air that served him well in currying support of Charlotte’s business community and convincing NFL owners he had the financial means and personal mettle to join their exclusive fraternity in 1993.

The Sports Illustrated report details that his imperious air carries over to the workplace, where he is referred to as “Mister” by many Panthers employees. Others refer to him as “the Big Cat.” At the base of the towering statute of Richardson at Bank of America Stadium’s north entrance — a gift from his business partners on his 80th birthday that stands exactly twice his height, at 12 feet, 6 inches and is set atop a four-feet pedestal — the inscription refers to him as “a man who took us beyond where others even imagined.”

A former Clemson football player, Mark Richardson was the public face of a six-year campaign to convince North and South Carolinians that an NFL expansion team was within their reach. Sports marketing expert Max Muhleman, who in 1987 orchestrated the city’s successful acquisition of an NBA team (the Charlotte Hornets), devised the strategy to convince NFL owners that Charlotte could and would support pro football.

The process was fiercely competitive, managed by a relatively young NFL staffer named Roger Goodell, who later succeeded Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. And Charlotte made the final five-city cut for one of two expansion teams.

To make Charlotte stand tall against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Memphis and St. Louis, Muhleman drew a large circle around the city, its radius stretching 150 miles in all directions, and presented that as the true fan base. Forget Charlotte’s modest population, its 31st-ranked TV market, its reputation as ACC basketball country. Football fans would flock from as far away as Raleigh, N.C, and the South Carolina coast, given an NFL team of their own to cheer, Muhleman vowed.

As a show of fans’ support — and to raise money for Richardson’s privately built NFL stadium — Muhleman then devised the concept of PSLs, “permanent seat licenses,” which not only guaranteed a lifetime right to buy tickets to specific seats but could be bequeathed upon death.

At small-town pep rallies and sports-club gatherings across the two states, Muhleman and Mark Richardson extoled the virtues of helping build the Panthers with PSLs.

Meanwhile, Jerry Richardson lobbied NFL owners directly and made the difficult business moves to keep pace with the league’s escalating price tag for an expansion team: first $75 million, then $140 million and ultimately $206 million when deferred TV revenue was factored in.

To do so, he expanded the partnership group and enlisted help from McColl, the powerful banker, who assured NFL owners he would provide a line of credit that ensured Richardson could cover the expansion fee and build his stadium without incurring crippling debt.

When Tagliabue stepped to the podium at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare that October afternoon to announce Charlotte as the league’s unanimous choice, Richardson strode to the stage to join him, as his wife, children and business partners leapt and pumped their fists. Richardson turned to a bank of TV cameras, asked which were from North Carolina stations and thanked everyone who bought the seat-licenses.

“You have made history today,” Richardson said, staring into the cameras. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

The effect rippled throughout both states.

In Raleigh, Ferrel Guillory, now a senior fellow with MDC Inc., a workforce and economic development nonprofit in Chapel Hill and adjunct professor in UNC’s Department of Public Policy, was transported to his Louisiana childhood and the memory of New Orleans getting its NFL Saints in 1966. He immediately understood the boost in civic pride and the pride that followed as Jacksonville and Nashville got their NFL teams.

“These teams were affirmations that we had left the old, benighted South behind, and our major cities had joined mainstream America,” Guillory said. “It was a sign of the burgeoning of the New South — not the political New South, but the commercial and economic New South.”

In Charlotte, decades’ old envy of Atlanta seemed to evaporate. Charlotte had become a major league city, with an NBA team and an NFL team. No longer would “N.C.” be needed after its name. And up and down the Mid-Atlantic, football fans who had grown up with the Washington Redskins — the only NFL offering on local TV — could shift allegiances closer to home.

In the joyous aftermath, Mark Richardson guaranteed a Super Bowl within 10 years. The Panthers have come close twice, edged by the New England Patriots, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2003, and falling to Denver, 24-10, in Super Bowl 50 after reclaiming the NFC championship in 2015.

And now, a city waits.

As of Monday, Richardson stepped away from the Panthers to focus on finding a buyer. That afternoon, the team announced that Tina Becker, who began her 19-year tenure with the Panthers as a member of the Top Cats cheerleading squad and subsequently rose through the ranks, had been named chief operating officer and assumed full control of day-to-day management immediately.

Richardson will be able to choose his buyer, but the deal will be subject to vetting by the owners on the NFL’s finance committee and must be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners league-wide. That process generally takes several months, and it’s not clear if the Panthers will have a new owner in place by the outset of the 2018 season. Some within the sport speculate privately that the sale price could be around $2.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Panthers Coach Ron Rivera has negotiated a fine line in his public remarks, saying that he had not witnessed any untoward behavior by Richardson but felt everyone “should be heard” in the investigation. And players, including quarterback Cam Newton, generally have restricted their comments to their personal experience with Richardson, thanking him for giving them an opportunity while acknowledging the seriousness of the allegations.

Will Richardson sell to an existing business partner committed to keeping the team in Charlotte? Can he find a deep-pocketed new investor willing to do the same? Or will the top suitor prefer to shed Bank of America Stadium and move elsewhere?

If so, what would that mean for the thousands of permanent-seat-licenses holders, whose bequeathable asset won’t mean much in Montreal or Mexico City, should either be the Panthers’ next home?

And what of Charlotte, which remains the biggest city between Washington and Atlanta yet has lost much of its banking clout and Fortune 500 muscle in corporate moves since the Panthers were awarded?

The Charlotte Observer ran an editorial this week acknowledging the city’s unease, both about Richardson’s alleged behavior and the prospect of losing the team, and making a case for the team to stay.

But in pro sports, nothing lasts. Players’ careers are short. Dynasties fade. And not even a 12-foot statue can guarantee a man’s stature.

Mark Maske contributed to this report.

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