Jerry Richardson, as a Google search quickly proves, is invariably described as “old school.” The 75-year-old Carolina Panthers owner played pro football back when tickets cost one dollar, there were no player unions and black quarterbacks didn’t exist. He made his fortune in the food service industry, with a strong emphasis on personal appearance and low wages for all under his employ. During the NFL lockout, he oozed with contempt toward every player, union official and fan. Even the sainted Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning earned an ugly sneer.
Now he is the owner who told number-one draft pick quarterback Cam Newton that grooming and servility are prerequisites for success. On The Charlie Rose Show, Richardson proudly recounted asking Newton if he had any tattoos or piercings. When Newton replied, “No sir, I don’t have any,” Richardson told Rose he informed his new franchise quarterback: “Good. We want to keep it that way. We want to keep no tattoos, no piercings and I think you’ve got a very nice haircut.” No word if he then checked Newton’s gums.
It is worth noting that Richardson didn’t hesitate signing Jeremy Shockey in the off-season, a tight end with more tattoos than a Hell’s Angel. But there is a difference. Shockey is a white good ol’ boy from Oklahoma. Newton is black and branded by the media as having “character issues.”
Certainly, many were surprised when the “old school” Richardson used the NFL draft’s number-one overall pick on the Auburn University Heisman trophy winner. While Newton’s talent, size and speed are unquestioned, his recent past has been a national soap opera. It includes multiple school transfers, accusations of theft and the finding that his father attempted to sell his services to the highest bidder. It was a unique journey that said less about Newton than the gutter economy of the NCAA, where everyone gets paid but those the people pay to see perform. Now Richardson is telling the world that no one should worry about Newton’s “character issues” because he is under the owner’s care from this point forward. He even told Newton not to worry about the past because Richardson would guide his future.
It is one thing to have the Panthers owner express these feelings to Newton privately. One gets the feeling that a rich variety of racist nonsense is said to players behind closed doors. We can remember last year, before the 2010 NFL draft, when it was leaked that Miami General Manager Jeff Ireland asked star Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. Or recall Anthony Prior, former NFL player, who wrote the book Slave Side of Sunday. Prior said to me, “I’ve heard coaches call players ‘boy,’ ‘porch monkeys,’ ‘sambos.’ I’ve been in film sessions where coaches would try to get a rise out of players by calling them ‘boy’ or ‘Jemima,’ and players are so conditioned to not jeopardize their place, they just take it.”
What differentiates Richardson’s brand of racial paternalism is his public, boastful pride. It’s like when Rick Perry made Jose Cuervo jokes in a speech at a Latino Political event. In other words, it’s a way of proclaiming your power over others because your station, your bank account and your skin color allow you to treat others like they live on their knees.
There are some in the press defending Richardson on the grounds that “the Carolina Panthers are a company, Richardson runs the company and many companies have dress codes and rules concerning personal appearance.” Yet there are two problems with that argument. The first is that the Panthers have no such team rules (see Shockey, Jeremy.). The second is that once you have on your pads and are under the helmet, no one can tell if you have more tattoos and piercings than Lisbeth Salander. This is not about Newton’s personal appearance. It’s about the public effort to exert control over a 22-year-old man by an owner who posesses what can only be called a plantation mentality. If Richardson really wants this kind of absolute power over young, gifted black athletes, he should just sell the Panthers and apply for a job at the NCAA. As for Cam Newton, he might want to read about some Panthers who weren’t under the control of people like Jerry Richardson.