Updated at 5 p.m.
Outgoing Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has been fined $2.75 million following an NFL investigation into sexual and workplace misconduct allegations made against him by former Panthers employees. It's the largest fine in NFL history.
Former SEC Chairman Mary Jo White — who was hired by the league to conduct an independent investigation into Richardson and the Panthers — found substantive evidence to support the claims made by former employees.
“[The investigation] did substantiate the claims that have been made, and identified no information that would either discredit the claims made or that would undermine the veracity of the employees who have made those claims,” White said in her review of the investigation.
Richardson put the team up for sale in December following a Sports Illustrated article that outlined sexual harassment claims. Female employees accused Richardson of using sexually suggestive language, insisting on reaching across women’s laps to fasten their seat belts, and asked multiple employees if he could shave their legs. The review substantiated the allegations but didn't confirm specific details.
According to Sports Illustrated, there were claims that Richardson directed a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout on at least one occasion. Sports Illustrated also reported that at least four of the employees alleging the misconduct claims received significant monetary settlements that came with non-disclosure requirements forbidding them from discussing the details.
NFL owners approved the record-breaking $2.2 billion sale of the Panthers to hedge fund manager David Tepper. The sale is expected to close in the next few weeks.
In April, a former Panther’s employee — frustrated with the pace of the NFL’s investigation — spoke out anonymously in an open letter published in Sports Illustrated. She provided hand-written suggestive notes from Richardson. They asked her to adjust her appearance with pedicures before a game, asked if she thought of him as a grandfather, second father, boyfriend or “something else,” among other things. A note also said, “I regret I have never been able to give you pleasure.”
White’s investigation found the misconduct was limited to Richardson. “No other employee of the Panthers is alleged to have engaged in such conduct, and the review did not discover evidence of similar conduct by other employees of the club,” White said.
The investigation also confirmed that the Panthers and its ownership did not report the misconduct claims to the NFL, and that the league was not aware of the allegations until they became public in December 2017.
In a statement Thursday, the Panthers said:
“The Carolina Panthers recently received notice from the NFL that its investigation into workplace misconduct is complete. We cooperated throughout the investigation and have taken proactive steps to address any misconduct. While the investigation has concluded, we remain committed to improving all facets of our organization and fostering an environment in which all of our staff can trust they are safe and valued.”
White also wrote in her review that the Panthers’ newly enhanced anti-harassment and discrimination policies, procedures and trainings “should go a long way both to avoiding a recurrence of the problems… and to enhance what is already for many employees a positive workplace.”
White made broader recommendations for the NFL to consider before this year’s season. Her recommendations include: prohibiting the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to limit reports of personal conduct policy violations, a requirement that misconduct claims be reported to the NFL, the establishment of a hotline for employees to report their claims and a review of workplace best practices with team management personnel.
White’s recommendations will be presented to the NFL's conduct committee for consideration.
Most of the $2.75 million fine will go to organizations that work with sexual assault survivors, and deal with gender and race based issues. One of which is the Women of Color Network based in Harrisburg, Pa. The group helps address violence against women in communities of color. CEO Tonya Lovelace said she was surprised her organization will get some of the money, but wasn't sure how much it would receive.
“I think that what it demonstrates is the NFL’s ability to redirect funds in a way that is going to serve the very communities that were impacted by Mr. Richardson," Lovelace said. "I think that is a good model for how funds and fines can be used going forward.”
UNC Charlotte's football stadium was named after Richardson in 2013, after he donated $10 million to the school.
Asked if the school would change the name of stadium, UNCC spokesperson Buffie Stephens said "the university is evaluating the situation in light of the NFL decision and is just beginning to discuss."
This is a developing story. Check back for details.