Jerry Richardson's Tears
The Echo Foundation’s Award Against Indifference, the Panthers’ owner, and a statement on domestic violence
Jerry Richardson, who is 6-foot-3, who grew up the son of a barber in a military town, who caught a touchdown pass in an NFL championship game, who owns a professional football franchise, who is 78 years old and has survived heart transplant surgery, stood in front of a room full of millionaires and CEOs and two Nobel laureates on Wednesday night and cried.
That’s the lead around Charlotte today: The big man cried.
And the follow-up reaction, of course, in an age in which communication operates on the same principles as Newton’s Third Law: Was it real?
The question circulated in whispers at the banquet that followed The Echo Foundation’s annual awards gala, where Richardson was honored with the Echo Award Against Indifference. On the internet, the comments were louder, with people saying the big man’s tears could only be validated if he suspends one of his players. Meanwhile, two of the other featured guests, scientists Peter Agre and Martin Chalfie, wandered about the banquet, pecking at small plates of food, relatively unnoticed despite being Nobel Prize winners for proving things that are provable.
It was a strange end to a strange day for one of Charlotte’s most distinguished organizations.
The banquet, scheduled for months, was on for 6 p.m. Agre and Chalfie would speak in a panel discussion. Then Kurt Waldthausen would receive the Echo Family Legacy Award, honoring his family and his grandfather, Walter Cramer, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Then a marching band from West Mecklenburg High School would march through the room popping drums and cymbals, and then Richardson would receive his award.
All these things wound up happening, in order, on time. In fact, nearly everything that transpired inside McGlohon Theater on Wednesday night went according to plan.
But things happening outside wrapped the theater like a belt.
Just before 5 p.m., the Associated Press broke a story saying law enforcement officials had, in April, given the NFL the video of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice’s assault on his girlfriend. That contradicts the NFL’s stance that it hadn’t seen the video until this week.
The Rice-NFL story was relevant here, on Wednesday night, at this gala, for two reasons. One, Richardson owns the Panthers, who have a player named Greg Hardy, who in July was found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend and threatening to kill her. Hardy appealed the decision, though, and with the case on hold, he was allowed to play in the Panthers’ opener last weekend. The other reason it was relevant was that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was scheduled to attend the Echo Foundation event, honoring his friend, Richardson.
Until the Associated Press story broke, Goodell was on his way. News organizations gathered outside the theater. They pointed cameras into the parking lot and nodded as such people as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and former U.S. Ambassador Mark Erwin strode past, anonymous citizens in tuxes in an NFL world. Goodell never came, though. He changed his mind, or someone changed it for him, around 5 p.m. He was the only adjustment to the program until Richardson’s speech.
It’s been said the 21st century will be the century of the woman. If that’s the case, we’re 15 years in and just now getting around to the idea that men beating women is not only wrong, it’s an entire society’s job to stand against it. That’s happening now. Goodell and the NFL and its owners and coaches aren’t facing a new issue—domestic violence among professional athletes didn’t start with Rice—they’re facing a new communication world where video can circulate in an instant, the public can see the brutality of something many of us have never actually witnessed, and people can rally in irate masses in seconds. The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday published an editorial saying the Panthers—Richardson specifically—must suspend Hardy or risk the organization’s reputation. The editorial was one of the paper’s most popular reads this week.
After he accepted the award, Richardson addressed the topic on the city’s mind. He read a statement that was intended more for the people outside the room than in the room. His chin trembled as he read it, telling the cameras that “when it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference.” His longtime friend, Steve Luquire, put his hand on Richardson’s back. Richardson kept reading. His chin kept quivering. When he was finished, he tried to hustle off the stage, the best a 78-year-old who’s on his second heart can hustle. Luquire stopped him, though. The ceremony wasn’t over. Richardson, holding a handkerchief in his right hand, hadn’t officially received his framed award.
The Echo Foundation had another present for him, too, a book of letters from friends. Months before the event, Foundation President Stephanie Ansaldo sent a letter to people around the country and asked them to write nice words about Richardson. The responses poured in, from people like the Rooney family, the owners of the Steelers; or Don Keough, the former CEO of Coca-Cola Bottling Company; or McColl, the former bank CEO. Ansaldo said later that she received at least 45 lengthy letters heaping praise upon Richardson as an owner and a man. Her daughter-in-law spent weeks making copies of the letters and arranging the originals in the book.
While reporters in the theater tweeted clips of Richardson’s tears and his statement on domestic violence, and while the public reacted to those tweets by rapidly typing the first thoughts that came to mind, Ansaldo opened the book with the printed letters that took months to assemble. The plastic sleeves crackled a bit as she pulled them apart and flipped. Then she looked at Richardson and said, “I’d like to read just three excerpts, if you don’t mind?”
To which Richardson softly responded: “No, ma’am.”