Jerry Richardson’s Victims: Why Can’t the Statue Come Down?
Carolina Panthers founder’s likeness remains, despite confirmed sexual harassment
A 13-foot statue of Jerry Richardson still stands outside the north gate at Bank of America Stadium. It was meant as a testament to the man who brought the NFL to Charlotte. But for his victims, who faced years of sexual harassment before revelations of illicit behavior and secret payoffs forced Richardson to sell the team, the statue stands as a daily reminder of all they endured.
“I don’t drive by it on purpose because of the feelings that it stirs up,’’ said one of his victims, who requested her name be withheld because of a financial settlement with Richardson and the Panthers that includes a nondisclosure agreement. “It’s almost a PTSD sort of feeling, to drive by.”
Why did that statue remain after Richardson’s behavior was revealed in a December 2017 Sports Illustrated article that I co-authored, the details of which were confirmed in an NFL investigation this year? The short answer: New owner David Tepper agreed to keep the statue in place as part of his $2.2 billion purchase of the team. At a press conference in July, Tepper said he was “contractually obligated” to keep the statue. He has never elaborated. (Tepper declined an interview request for this story through team spokesman Steven Drummond.)
Victims hope that isn’t the final answer. In recent conversations with me, several say they believe there is another option for removing the statue, which stands on city-owned property—but only if the people of Charlotte want it moved. That’s the question city officials have yet to answer or even ask: Do we want that statue to continue to represent Charlotte?
“Do we just act like nothing has happened and just keep it moving, or do we show, ‘Hey, we’re all human, we make mistakes, but let’s make a wrong right?’” said another victim of Richardson’s sexual harassment, who also signed a nondisclosure agreement. “Let’s do the most that we can do to make it right instead of the least that we can do.
“I would ask that they just consider coming up with another option. Can we find another place to keep him instead of outside of the stadium? The gift that was given to Jerry Richardson for his 80th birthday has now become the responsibility of the city to look after, and I say, ‘Let’s come up with another place instead of there.’”
Richardson, known as the “Big Cat,” was a former NFL wide receiver—he caught a touchdown pass for the Baltimore Colts in the 1959 NFL Championship Game—turned wealthy fast-food magnate who, in 1993, realized his dream to bring pro football to his native Carolinas. But on a Friday afternoon a year ago, the team abruptly announced it was conducting an investigation into “allegations of workplace misconduct” against Richardson. The reason: The SI story was about to publish. It did two days later, on a Sunday, as the Panthers defeated the Green Bay Packers at Bank of America Stadium. That night, the team announced that Richardson was putting the Panthers up for sale.
Tepper, a hedge fund manager from Pittsburgh, bought the Panthers in May. Two months later, during his first official press conference, Tepper made his cryptic remark about his inability to take down or move the Richardson statue.
If Tepper can’t or won’t, it’s unclear what could compel the city to do it. The city leases the stadium property to the Panthers for $1 per year. The lease agreement largely allows the team to use the property as it sees fit, including the installation of various structures around the stadium. “A lease is a contract for possession of land. So long as the Panthers are in compliance with the lease, there is nothing for the City to do,” City Attorney Robert Hagemann, who’s retiring at the end of the year, wrote in an email to me. “And I see nothing that suggests that the Panthers are not in compliance with the lease.”
The lease does require the Panthers to “operate the franchise and conduct business and operations on the property in accordance with all valid and enforceable state, federal and local laws, regulations and ordinances and, as applicable, the NFL requirements.” Hagemann did not respond to a request to clarify if the Panthers may have violated the clause when Richardson harassed team employees. The lease also specifies that Charlotte “desires to project a positive image of professionalism, growth and hospitality consistent with that of a first-class city” and that the Panthers, as a condition of the lease, “agrees that it will use its best efforts at all times to conduct operations on the property in a manner which may enhance the image and reputation” of the city. It remains unclear whether the city could remove the statue if officials determines the team has violated the lease.
At this point, it appears that city officials have not considered the possibility. “We haven’t had any requests that I’m aware of to move it,’’ Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said in a telephone interview.
Victims have told me they’ve spoken to each other about the statue and agree it is at the top of their list of concerns. But they have not formally asked the city to consider moving it because they’re afraid to break their nondisclosure agreements. Although the NFL fined Richardson $2.75 million, it’s a small fraction of what the team sold for, and the league took no action against the organization. The victims say their forced silence has allowed the league, team, and city to all but ignore them.
“It’s almost twofold for me,’’ said one of the victims. “The Panthers themselves never got any kind of punishment, and they were indeed found to have done something wrong. Not only did they not get punishment, they never apologized, they never made mention of it, and then, ‘Oh, they’re going to also keep the statue up to honor this man who did this.’
“You feel violated all over again.”
Added another victim, “They’re basically saying, in a nonverbal way: ‘It was minor. No big deal. Yeah, they did an investigation. Yeah, maybe some people got paid or whatever. But we don’t care about what really happened.’”
Eiselt, herself a victim of assault—a man tried to abduct her at gunpoint in 2007, pushing her toward public office—said she understands how Richardson’s victims feel. “I certainly, especially being a woman, I want to be sensitive to victims feeling revictimized,’’ Eiselt said. “That said, it is a complicated issue, and I don’t know that the city should be the ones taking the first step. I think the Panthers should. I think the Panthers should reach out and talk to the victims about it. Because it’s their statue. It is on city property, but there’s contracts involved. It’s not clear-cut.
“The right thing would be for the Panthers to recognize and respect the victims of this and negotiate something with them that would make them feel heard and respected.”
The victims say they have not heard from the Panthers or Tepper, who has never explained why he agreed to keep the statue in place as part of the deal.
But at least one victim said she understands why Richardson insisted it remain. “That’s about money, and that’s about power and control,’’ she said, “which is what sexual harassment is about.”