Some thoughts on the death of Jerry Richardson
The Carolina Panthers' founder died Wednesday evening at age 86. He was once revered as a great man. He turned out to be terrifically and terribly human.
Over the last two years, I’ve been working with a lot of people who study character for a living. One of the things that continually comes up is a complicated dance you have to do if you hold someone up as a role model. For example: Aristotle’s philosophy was that you can become a person of good character mostly by having good virtuous habits. It’s more complicated than that, but on the surface level, if you try to do good things and reduce your vices, you’ll become a better person. Square that with the fact that Aristotle also thought that some people were naturally born to be slaves and that women are inferior to men. This ancient Greek philosopher, who defines for many what it means to have good character, is hard to hold up wholly as a paragon of virtue.
There are all sorts of examples of this. I recently had a chance to hear from a well-known comedy writer who got into the business because he once adored and emulated a man who turned out to have committed some really despicable acts, whose major works were full of warning signs. How do you separate the artist from the art? How can you excise the important parts of you that were inspired by people who turned out to have done terrible things? Can you? Should you? At the very least, you have to reckon with these things as you become older, when your initial childlike wonder with your surroundings starts to fade. Trying to believe that we live in a world of absolute good and evil may make it impossible to live in the world that we actually inhabit.
Jerry Richardson died Wednesday at age 86. The major issue with him wasn’t that his Carolina Panthers teams continually followed a good season with a lousy one, or that his own team commissioned a garishly large statue of himself standing between two anatomically accurate big cats. No. It was that Jerry Richardson turned out to be terrifically and terribly human; a man who created a large part of Charlotte’s current cultural identity while being a man who was trapped by the culture of its past. His boys’ club, businessman persona allowed him to land an NFL team in 1995, which is now a generation ago. But his upbringing several generations before that allowed him to think that there was nothing wrong with the way that he treated a number of men and women in his orbit.
Since his death, there have been a lot of remembrances written about him. Many of the former Panthers who played for him—Cam Newton, Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, and Ryan Kalil among them—thanked Richardson for giving them their careers. But there have been two people who shared thoughts with a lot more nuance. One, the team’s former radio play-by-play man, posted this bite-sized anecdote:
The other one was a lengthy Facebook post from Tom Sorensen, the legendary former sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer. It’s a frenetic read, whipsawing between warmth and bitterness, generosity and anger. At once, Richardson can seem down to Earth, and in the next paragraph, feels like he’s not from this planet. Sorensen admits that there’s no one anecdote that can explain Richardson’s complicated personality and life, which makes this particular tidbit feel apropos:
Richardson cared deeply how he was perceived, angry once about something a local TV sports anchor said about him, no more than a sentence or two. Asked him why he cared.
"I just do!" he said.
I only personally crossed paths with Jerry Richardson a few times. In 2012, I was walking up North Tryon Street when he came striding out of the Bank of America Corporate Center after a meeting with his financial advisers. I had a small television camera in tow and abruptly asked him what he thought of the upcoming Democratic National Convention, whose keynote speech was scheduled to be held in his stadium. “There are a lot of people in town who I don’t recognize or know,” he said in his trademark drawl, delivered ever so slowly, a slight smirk on his face. He was a large man who resembled, in so many ways, a little boy.
By that time, I was taking a check from Jerry Richardson, as a freelancer who produced the Carolina Panthers post-game TV show. I never crossed paths with him inside the stadium, where he was always referred to as “Mr. Richardson,” a sign of wary respect. Prayers for the hapless employee who referred to “Jerry,” especially if the man himself happened to be within earshot. That mandatory respect didn’t jive with the time I looked to the other end of the pew my wife and I were sitting in at Myers Park United Methodist Church. There was Richardson and his wife, both wearing name tags. A few moments later in the service, when the pastor asked you to greet people nearby, he stood up and extended his hand to me. “Hi,” he said warmly, “I’m Jerry.”
For years, meeting Jerry Richardson in casual Charlotte situations was a rite of passage, a way to earn your True Charlottean card. For example: The folks at Lupie’s Cafe, one of the city’s few remaining old-school and unpretentious institutions, used to crow about the fact that Richardson would stop by and eat there with little fanfare. He’d just sort of show up at places like that, not trying to attract a crowd, but at 6’3” and built like the bulky Baltimore Colts wide receiver he used to be, he never quite blended in.
When he landed the Carolina Panthers franchise in 1993, he famously found a TV camera from Channel 3 in Charlotte, looked directly into the lens, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!” He rode in parades. He was famously visible in his owner’s box in Bank of America Stadium. He made sure to hold training camps at Wofford College in Spartanburg, the place he’d graduated from, and the place where he’d go on to donate nearly a quarter-billion dollars. He was, for a time, one of Charlotte’s most famous people, and certainly one of its most powerful.
And yet. Right around the time when he was trying to get the team, his company, Flagstar, was settling lawsuits for racial discrimination at the Denny’s Restaurants it owned. During his tenure as the Panthers owner, he touched women inappropriately, made inappropriate sexually-charged comments to them, and once used a slur to refer to a Black scout. I, again, never witnessed this either. But I did witness a particularly cringe-worthy press conference where he openly, repeatedly, and obviously flirted with a reporter who was sitting in the front row. I’ve talked to a lot of people who were once in the building over the years. Many of them knew the importance of what he built, but were overjoyed to see him gone after he sold the team to David Tepper in 2018.
Hence, the same man who once drove 80 miles to attend the funeral of a season ticket-holder he’d never met was also capable of, according to a woman he employed, “[calling] me to your stadium suite in the middle of the week so you could take off my shoes, place my legs in your lap and rub their entire length, from toes to crotch.”
If you tend to see Richardson as a great man, which was his public persona in Charlotte for a very long time, you may feel that the two paragraphs above are hard-to-read or unfair. If you don’t, you might think that those two paragraphs should be at the top. In the end, the first lines of so many obituaries begin with both: The scandal and the legacy. Some people chose to look past all that, and remember him for the objective thing that he did: Bring an NFL franchise to Charlotte. But Jerry Richardson, like all of us, was more complicated than that. He turned out to be human, and another example of something we all realize eventually: All of us are capable of wonderful and terrible things.