Guest Editorial: Legacy tarnished, Panthers boss knew he must step aside

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Jerry Richardson’s statue stands outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, home of the Carolina Panthers.

The heroic figure, 13 feet tall, extends an arm, its hand cupping a football — Richardson’s gift to Charlotte and the Carolinas.

Now, figuratively, the owner of the NFL’s only team between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta has fumbled. Under investigation for reported abusive conduct toward employees, Richardson said Sunday he will sell his franchise after this season. Monday, he stepped down from an active role with the team.

The statue, unveiled just last year to mark Richardson’s 80th birthday, is tarnished.

But this isn’t just another powerful man caught in the apparently endless succession of accusations and revelations about misconduct toward less-powerful people. Not in North and South Carolina. He’s a legend — a man who outlived his first heart and who used his earnings from a short football career to build a food empire and then applied those earnings to join perhaps the most exclusive club in professional sports.

Richardson, born in tiny Spring Hope, N.C., starred in football at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Drafted by the Baltimore Colts, he caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 NFL Championship Game but played just two seasons before buying part of a Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg. Later, he co-founded Spartan Foods and led Flagstar, a foodservice company that employed tens of thousands.

The former receiver made a spectacular catch in 1993, realizing his dream of bringing an NFL team to Charlotte. The Carolina Panthers are now worth an estimated $2.3 billion, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Richardson is a private man and not an overly meddling owner, leaving operational decisions largely to his executives and professionals. The team has been successful, appearing in two Super Bowls, although it lost both times. It’s won many division titles and at 10-4 is likely to make the playoffs this season.

The Panthers enjoy strong fan support across the Carolinas, and star players such as Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen are popular for their community work as well as for touchdowns and tackles. When a talented player, Greg Hardy, was charged with domestic violence several years ago, Richardson ordered him cut from the team.

Yet there was a side of Richardson that wasn’t known by the public — that apparently was purposely hidden.

Sports Illustrated reported Sunday 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.”

By the time of that report, investigations already were underway. No denials were issued, and Richardson’s decision to step away from his team seems to acknowledge his untenable position.

Aside from shock and disappointment, immediate reaction focuses on speculation about potential purchasers and the chance that the next owner might move the Panthers to some other city. That seems unlikely. The team has been a great fit in Charlotte, where only a bright future can be forecast. But in a league that went for two decades without a team in Los Angeles, perhaps anything is possible.

In any case, Richardson made the right decision. As he discarded a failing heart for a new one in 2009, his team could not continue with him at its heart.

His statue is twice life size, but it’s harder to look up to Richardson now.