Late Sunday afternoon – as a Sports Illustrated story detailing alleged workplace misconduct by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson made the rounds – a lawyer who had tangled with the NFL in past cases sent a topical text message that likely framed the tone of a few ownership suites on game day.
“I don’t know how they get out of this easily,” it read.
“They” is the NFL’s power infrastructure. As in: The owners; commissioner Roger Goodell; the investigative arm, etc. And of course, the lawyers. In an investigation like this, “they” includes an army of lawyers.
Richardson, 81, had put them into an interesting spot, standing accused of allegedly sexually harassing women in his organization and using a racial slur to describe a Panthers scout. And if that didn’t make other owners and NFL executives squirm enough, Richardson allegedly bought off those who raised a stink about it, signing non-disclosure agreements that concealed all of it from public view.
Given all that, it was fair to wonder how the league’s power brokers were going to solve this problem – the latest in an assembly line of pies to the face this season. But before anyone at the league office had the opportunity to ponder it too long, Richardson may have helped contain the damage. This is fortunate for the NFL because the agony of dragging out a lengthy, ugly probe into an owner might have invited more than the league’s flawed investigative process could have handled. And really, who’s kidding themselves? The last thing in the world that this billionaire fraternity wants is to have one of its own dissected. Particularly after lavishing that big fat extension on Goodell, who would have had to stand in judgement.
So by Sunday night, Richardson tried to solve the mess he allegedly created. Word came down via a press release from the franchise: He would be selling the team at the end of the season. The release didn’t include a postscript, but if it had, it would have read something like, Now everyone go away. Please.
In the final analysis for Richardson, selling might be the right thing to do. Indeed, if the allegations are true, it might be the only thing to do. Either way, it makes the NFL’s job in this mess exponentially easier. If Richardson’s ownership is on the clock, it makes his past conduct far less of a priority. After all, what’s the point of pressing to make a “conduct detrimental to the league” case if the guy allegedly responsible for the conduct appears to already be waving the white flag? You could argue Richardson has already delivered what his detractors might have called for in the first place – his departure from the ownership fraternity.
But there is some fine print here. Richardson is likely doing a solid for not only the league office and investigative arm – he’s also protecting other owners from a judgement on a very lucrative tool in business: Non-disclosure agreements.
Prior to Richardson putting his franchise on the block Sunday, a handful of lawyers with some manner of ties to the NFL agreed on one point: an investigation into the use of non-disclosure agreements by owners could be exceedingly problematic for the league. Largely because of their use to conceal conduct from the league office that would stimulate some kind of disciplinary action.
The lawyers who spoke to Yahoo Sports on Sunday said that was the massive red flag in the Sports Illustrated report on Richardson: That he allegedly used non-disclosure agreements with four former employees to shield his actions. An act that could potentially protect him from some form of litigation, but also keep him in the good graces of the league.
The bottom line: If the NFL was (or is) going to conduct a meaningful investigation into Richardson, it would need to make an attempt at penetrating the non-disclosure agreements that were struck with ex-employees. And if the employees refused to breach their contract with Richardson, it would leave league investigators in a difficult corner. One in which they would have to ask Richardson to waive the punitive measure of the agreements. After all, no alleged victim is going to speak if it means having to relinquish a financial settlement. Essentially, investigators would have to hope that Richardson would serve up the alleged grievances on a silver platter. Which he likely wouldn’t. And at that point, the NFL would have to make a decision to either relent or threaten Richardson with sanctions.
To relent would make the league’s investigative process look toothless and hypocritical, particularly after the NFL’s lawyers went to such great lengths against New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. But to press on carries its own brand of problems, including what forms of punishment could be used under the personal conduct policy. The most likely outcome if Richardson were uncooperative would be a suspension and fine, perhaps along the lines of the six games and $500,000 that the NFL docked from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay following his arrest in 2014 for driving while intoxicated.
The latter outcome could also have a deeper ramification for owners, creating a precedent that using non-disclosure agreements to conceal behavior instantly constitutes some kind of breach of league rules. That would be an interesting development since it’s extremely unlikely that Richardson is the only owner (or player/coach/executive) to allegedly use non-disclosure agreements to conceal wrongdoing.
We can all be sure there are other hush-money contracts hanging in the wind, with their billionaire NFL authors fidgeting in their seats right about now. But if the league doesn’t dive all the way in on Richardson, the whole question of non-disclosures doesn’t have to be fleshed out. The power brokers will retain a formidable tool that allows them to trade money for misdeeds – no different than the world of politics or finance or entertainment.
The NFL will have gotten out of this mess more easily than expected. And all it will cost is the (allegedly) offending party leaving the fraternity in the coming months. Jerry Richardson made a mess for the league and then solved it himself. Now the league will have to hope that any questions about how the owners conceal their dirty laundry with non-disclosures will depart with him.
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