Image tarnished, Panthers’ top cat slinks out of sight

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So now we know.

Jerry Richardson’s public image as a gruff but honorable Southern gentleman was a myth.

Behind closed doors he was a boor and a bully and a lecherous old man.

An NFL investigation has concluded not only that allegations of sexual and racial harassment against Richardson were true, but there was even more misconduct on his part that had not come to light.

Richardson, 81, the outgoing owner of the Carolina Panthers, was fined $2.75 million by the league, its largest penalty ever. He announced that he was selling the team after the allegations first were revealed in late 2017. Small wonder. The investigator, former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chairman Mary Jo White, said she found no reason to doubt the veracity of complaints that Richardson had:

• Made sexually suggestive comments to female employees.

• Directed a racial slur toward a black scout for the team.

• Touched female employees in an inappropriate manner.

White also concluded that the “improper conduct” involved Richardson alone, although the Panthers related none of the employees’ claims, or settlements with some of the workers, to the league office.

One former employee wrote in an open letter to Richardson that was published by Sports Illustrated: “I didn’t know what to do when you asked me to turn around so you could see how my jeans looked. I didn’t know what to do when you brushed my breasts to put my seat belt around me in the front seat of your car. I didn’t know what to do when you put your hands on my mouth, for me to kiss them. I didn’t know what to do when you asked me uncomfortable, sexually charged questions.”

Now the city of Charlotte is wondering what to do. A statue of Richardson, flanked by a pair of snarling panthers, still adorns the entrance to Bank of America Stadium. UNC-Charlotte’s football stadium bears his name. The Charlotte Regional Partnership bestows annual “Jerry Awards” as a tribute, in part, to Richardson.

As for the NFL’s statement about this investigation, it carefully tipped along the sideline. The report included few details. It contained no denunciations of Richardson’s behavior … made no pronouncements that such misconduct has no place in the league, not now or ever, no matter how much money you have.

The fine will go toward organizations that address race- and gender-based issues “in and outside of the workplace,” the statement said, as well as league-wide “workplace training.” White also recommended that the league ban the use of nondisclosure agreements in the future to cover allegations of harassment. Case closed.

As for Richardson, his record preceded him. When he was owner of the Denny’s restaurant chain, the company agreed to a $54.4 million settlement with the Justice Department over complaints of racial discrimination from black customers. The 58 plaintiffs included six black Secret Service agents. By comparison, a $2.75 million fine is chump change. Richardson is about to close on the sale of his team for $2.275 billion.

Then he will quietly leave the NFL with a slap on the wrist and a fistful of cash. That’ll teach him.

Now, if he had taken a knee during the national anthem ... then there might be hell to pay.