CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers have announced that Tina Becker has been promoted to Chief Operating Officer with full control of the day-to-day management of the organization, making her one of the highest-ranking female executives for any of the 32 teams in the NFL.
The move comes after the NFL launched an investigation into alleged sexual and racist misconduct by longtime owner Jerry Richardson. The 81-year-old is stepping from the daily operation and will focus on the pending sale of the franchise.
Team president Danny Morrison had resigned earlier in the year, and there was no COO before, or after, his resignation.
Becker has served in a variety of roles during her career with the Panthers, including directing the organization's business and administrative priorities, as well as dealing with league affairs.
Becker said in a release Monday that "these have been some of the most difficult days of my 19 years with the Panthers, but I am lifted up by the strong resolve and the commitment our employees have shown to this organization."
Report: Panthers owner accused of sexual harassment, racist comment
The National Football League and the Carolina Panthers have said very little since explosive allegations of sexual harassment and a racist remark surfaced against Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson on Sunday.
After the Carolina Panthers announced an investigation into Richardson last week, Sports Illustrated published a report Sunday detailing Richardson's alleged workplace misconduct.
The report claims that on multiple occasions, Richardson's conduct triggered complaints. His accusers levied allegations he sexually harassed female employees and directed a racial slur at an African-American employee. It details that Richardson would allegedly ask women to turn around so he could admire their backsides, give them back rubs and insist on reaching across their laps to fasten seat belts.
On Sunday night, the Panthers issued a statement from Richardson announcing that he plans to sell the team at the end of the 2017-2018 season.
Just hours before the Panthers kicked off against the Green Bay Packers, the NFL said it had taken over the investigation into Richardson and the allegations.
Chris Swecker, a former assistant director with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told Channel 9 on Sunday that the NFL’s decision makes sense.
"The mystery was why that wasn't done in the beginning. We know that if you look at the NFL's code of conduct, it also applies to owners," Swecker said.
The Sports Illustrated report also noted that former Panthers employees received monetary settlements which came with nondisclosure agreements, prohibiting them from discussing the allegations against Richardson.
Swecker said those details are particularly concerning.
"It's not an admission of guilt, but when you pay out significant sums of money, if the Sports Illustrated article is correct, that certainly raises red flags with the league," Swecker said.
Swecker added that it’s important to keep in mind that investigators need to work through the allegations to find out what truly happened.
The Panthers have not released any further details since the organization said Friday that it had launched an internal investigation into workplace misconduct allegations against Richardson.
Team spokesman Steven Drummond said in a release that, "The Carolina Panthers and Mr. Richardson take these allegations very seriously and are fully committed to a full investigation and taking appropriate steps to address and remediate any misconduct."
Drummond told The Associated Press the team couldn't comment publicly on the specifics of the allegations because they were under review.
The investigation against the team’s only owner in franchise history is being led by the international law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan LLP, and will be overseen by Erskine Bowles, who is a minority owner.
On Sunday, local attorney Lee Robertson spoke with Channel 9, and said the NFL’s decision to investigate likely came after public concern over Bowles overseeing the internal investigation.
"It probably is just (the) NFL's decision to avoid any question that the investigation is tainted by some conflict of interest," Robertson said.
Robertson added that it’s likely the Panthers are continuing their own investigation.
The 81-year-old Richardson brought NFL football to the Carolinas in 1993 when he became the first former NFL player since George Halas to own a team. The Panthers began playing two years later in 1995.
"I have had a strong relationship with Mr. Richardson during my time with the Panthers," coach Ron Rivera said in a statement to ESPN. "I have enormous respect for the man, but will wait for the results of the investigation before making any judgment."
The Panthers have made a series of peculiar moves in the last year.
Team President Danny Morrison, who was well-liked in the Carolinas and had worked on business operations, abruptly resigned in February.
Then, as the Panthers were preparing for training camp in 2017, Richardson unexpectedly fired general manager Dave Gettleman, who led the team to the Super Bowl just two years ago, and replaced him with former general manager Marty Hurney. The move was odd considering Carolina has made the playoffs three times in four seasons under Gettleman.
Richardson, who rarely conducts interviews, has never addressed the moves.
Richardson was hospitalized in 2008, one month after receiving a pacemaker. Richardson underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2002 and was placed on a donor waiting list for a new heart. He received the new heart Feb. 1, 2009, and has not had any known setbacks since.
He is only one of two owners to have owned a franchise since its inception. The other is Houston’s Robert McNair.
NFL Personal Conduct Policy
The NFL’s personal conduct policy is meant to establish “clear standards of behavior for all NFL personnel,” including players, coaches and owners
The league's investigation could be headed by a special council for investigations and conduct. That would be a review panel of Richardson's peers, fellow owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
If an NFL investigation finds Richardson committed misconduct in the workplace, then discipline could range from community service to a fine to suspension, or a combination of the three.
Richardson would have a chance to appeal.
As for Richardson's status, the policy places individuals on paid leave if they are formally charged with a violent crime or a sexual assault, or if an NFL investigation “finds evidence they violated the league's policy.”
Ultimately, the final decision on any discipline resides with Goodell.
Richardson's status with the team is unchanged as of Sunday.
Fans shocked about allegations against Richardson
Several fans said they were struggling to make sense of the allegations.
“My initial reaction is like, ‘Wow,’” fan Loren Pottinger said.
They said Richardson has been a rock for the organization for decades.
“It shocked me because he is such a community supporter,” fan Marcella Stocker said.
Stocker called Richardson her hero for the number of generous donations he's made over the years in the Charlotte community.
“Yeah, they did a bunch of work, food drives like that Panthers for the Holidays,” Stocker said. “I just ran into one the other day.”
Two college stadiums are named after him -- he gave money to support athletic programs for the Charlotte 49ers and Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
He's also donated to the Red Cross and the Charleston church shooting victims, and organized other charity events in the Charlotte area.
Panthers full statement:
"The Carolina Panthers today announced that it has commenced an internal investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against the team’s owner and founder, Jerry Richardson. The investigation is being led by the outside international law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, LLP, and will be overseen by limited owner and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
“The Carolina Panthers and Mr. Richardson take these allegations very seriously and are fully committed to a full investigation and taking appropriate steps to address and remediate any misconduct,” team spokesman Steven Drummond said. “The entire organization is fully committed to ensuring a safe, comfortable and diverse work environment where all individuals, regardless of sex, race, color, religion, gender, or sexual identity or orientation, are treated fairly and equally. We have work to do to achieve this goal, but we are going to meet it.”