By DERON SNYDER
That’s what NFL owners should ask themselves as the current events make “stick to sports” impossible.
The outside world has crashed their party and beat up one of their own, leaving everyone to ponder who might be next. Like lots of powerful men lately – and 85 percent of NFL owners are of that gender – Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has been brought down by words and actions that once were prevalent but not discussed publicly.
Sports Illustrated dropped a bombshell on the league prior to Sunday’s kickoff when it reported that several former Panthers employees have received “significant” monetary settlements due to workplace misconduct by Richardson. The infractions included sexually suggestive language and behavior, as well as directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.
The article, and an announcement that the team was launching an investigation, led Richardson to declare he’s selling the franchise. Just like that, the 81-year-old self-made billionaire who brought the NFL to Charlotte, is on his way out.
“Jerry is one of the really, really, really outstanding men of football that I’ve ever met and I really admire him,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters Sunday. “I know he made it the old-fashioned way; he worked for it.”
He apparently was too old-fashioned, overly fond of antebellum mores and values.
Calling the boss “Mister” – not “Mr. Richardson,” just “Mister” – reeks of the plantation, even if everyone refers to him that way. It’s no wonder he slipped and used a slur in that environment, where subliminal racism probably is rampant. It’s no surprise he invited female employees to private meetings in his suite and asked to shave their legs, or gave inappropriate back rubs.
“I can just tell you my personal experiences with Mr. Richardson, and how he has had such a father-like role to a lot of players in that locker room, present and past,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told reporters Sunday.
Players are among the worst people to offer character references.
They’re likely to receive preferential treatment compared to regular employees. And as men, they’re not subjected to the owner’s sexual harassment, which reportedly includes asking women to turn around on Jeans Day so he can ogle their behinds. He might view players as prized possessions, but without the objectification and sexualization.
Richardson is a man of his times, no doubt. Too many folks still cling to the racism, sexism and misogynism that were engrained as ways of life. He’s 81 years old, which means he was in his mid-20s when Bobby Mitchell became the first African-American player signed by Washington’s NFL franchise and the Dallas Cowboys added cheerleaders to their gameday experience.
Scandal is the last thing the NFL needs, already awash in a host of difficult problems. It’s yet another topic drawing attention away from the game, shining a light on the periphery, where the league struggles to be smooth and efficient.
The notion of a franchise investigating its founding owner didn’t inspire confidence. Sports Illustrated reported that team officials, upon learning of the upcoming article, contacted current and former employees and encouraged them to remain silent, especially those who had reached confidential settlements.
But with the league assuming control of the investigation, I wonder if Richardson’s peers are committed to a deep dive. He announced he’s selling the team. New management is in place. Maybe his fellow owners want to take perfunctory look and treat Richardson gently, realizing they one day might have to lie in the bed they make.
This is bad time for men who harassed women in the past, even more so if those women were subordinates or hoped to gain employment. From Hollywood to Capital Hill, Wall Street to Madison Avenue, victims are sharing their #MeToo incidents. With the trail reaching the NFL, wiseguys would wager that other owners are guilty of creepy behavior, too.
Players will watch with great interest to see if the personal conduct code is enforced as vigorously in the boardroom as it is in the locker room. Or in the green room, as several prominent NFL Network personalities and a high-ranking executive have been named in a lawsuit alleging they sexually harassed a former wardrobe stylist.
“We take that very seriously,” commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last week before the Richardson news broke. “Those issues are important to us. We want to make sure that all of our employees, whether at the NFL Network or at the league office or at clubs, are working in a safe and comfortable environment.”
But I bet we hear another “me, too” before we get there.