What David Tepper said on Cam Newton, Jerry Richardson statue, and what he meant

What David Tepper said on Cam Newton, Jerry Richardson statue, and what he meant

Panthers owner David Tepper met with Charlotte media Wednesday afternoon, his first question-and-answer session since February.

A lot has happened in the seven months since. COVID-19 brought the world to a quarantine standstill, franchise quarterback Cam Newton was released — a move Tepper said was related to COVID (more on that later) — and Tepper had the statue of his predecessor Jerry Richardson taken down.

Tepper was asked about those topics and many more during his 33-minute Zoom call. The Athletic examines what Tepper said Wednesday — and more importantly, what he meant.

What he said: “The Jerry Richardson statue, as we said, was a safety reason at the time. If you remember the environment, every statue in the country was coming under attack. So it just made sense from all standpoints to move that statue. We made a fast decision. It was a right decision, that was why it was done.”

What it means: The fact that Richardson made keeping up his 13-foot statue a condition of the sale of the team never sat well with Tepper, who paid a record $2.275 billion for the Panthers in the wake of Richardson’s workplace misconduct scandal. So when the protests erupted across the country in May following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, Tepper acted swiftly to have the Richardson statue removed.

What he said (in response to whether the statue could return if the social climate calms down): “I don’t think things will ever be quieted down. Nor should they, in some respects.”

What it means: It’s not ever coming back.

What he said: “I didn’t know so many people in Charlotte knew a word that began with F, I would say that. … It was a very difficult decision. Nicole (Tepper, his wife) was crying about the decision. We really respected Cam, we still do, obviously. I wish him the best possible up in New England. The problem with COVID as such, and not knowing what was going on, put us in a very difficult position at his salary, quite frankly. We made the best possible decision we could, given the circumstances.”

What it means: Trying to connect the Cam decision to COVID-19 is disingenuous on a couple of levels — in terms of the timing and financial aspects. The coronavirus dominoes started falling across the sports world on March 11 when the NBA suspended its season. The Panthers gave Newton permission to seek a trade less than a week later when U.S. leaders were not close to grasping the enormity of the pandemic. As for Newton’s salary, he was due to make $21 million in 2020 in the final year of his contract. That’s exactly the same average annual salary that the Panthers are paying Newton’s successor, Teddy Bridgewater, over his three-year deal. The fact is the Panthers were concerned about Newton’s recent injury history and wanted first-year coach Matt Rhule to have a clean slate with his own quarterback — something Newton’s side was predicting privately months before the scenario played out.

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What he said: “It’s hard not to have fans in the building, especially going to be hard not to have fans in the building if all our division rivals have fans in their buildings. We hope that we will have it, and not have that competitive disadvantage.”

What it means: Several times during his Zoom, Tepper either subtly or otherwise tried to apply some political pressure to N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, who declined to grant the Panthers an extension to allow them to have a limited number of fans for the season opener Sept. 13 against the Raiders. North Carolina is expected to remain in its current reopening phase until Oct 2, two days before the Panthers’ second home game vs. Arizona. The Saints are the only NFC South to announce they will have fans at games, beginning Sept. 27 against Green Bay. But Tampa Bay said it expects to have limited crowds later this season if current COVID trends hold, and Georgia has been among the more aggressive states in reopening throughout the pandemic. Tepper can lean on Cooper all he wants, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell created the competitive — and fiscal — imbalance by choosing not to implement an across-the-board attendance rule.

What he said: “Listen, it’s just a question of how the different regions are and what they view and how the different governors are and such, and maybe how much they like football or not. (Laughs) I shouldn’t have said that. (Tepper then apologized to Zoom moderator/communications director Steven Drummond and laughed again.)”

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What it means: See above.

What he said: “With the stadium, with this COVID, it’s pushed all decisions back. Open-air stadiums with beautiful weather seem a lot better to me today than they did last year, to tell you the truth.”

What it means: Tepper has often talked about wanting to build a state-of-the-art, downtown stadium with a retractable roof so Charlotte can bid to host Final Fours and Super Bowls. And while he walked that back a bit Wednesday, it’s hard to believe his vision for a new stadium and what it could mean for Charlotte has changed completely. As for when and where that stadium might be built, Tepper said he’s had no recent discussions with Charlotte Pipe & Foundry, which announced in May it’s relocating from its expansive, 55-acre site that’s in close proximity to Bank of America Stadium. There are obviously a ton of hurdles to clear — including certain battles over taxpayer money to come — but it feels almost like a fait accompli that Tepper will acquire and build on the Pipe & Foundry site.

What he said: “Listen, it’s difficult decisions. It’s decisions that keep me up, they still keep me up, OK? But the question is what’s right for the organization and what’s right for the individual in the long term? That’s what you have to think about when you’re running an organization. And I don’t take one person lightly, OK? Do not think I do.”

What it means: Tepper, the NFL’s richest owner, was responding to a question about the two rounds of layoffs and/or furloughs that impacted as many as 40 team employees across several departments. Tepper said some of the changes “needed to be done for a while,” while others were the result of the lost revenues stemming from the lack of fans at games. Both of those may be true. But it’s still a bad look for a hedge fund manager worth $13 billion to be cutting jobs during a pandemic. Tepper bristled at a follow-up question about the cuts, saying not all of the decisions were based purely on dollars and cents.

What he said: “As far as Wofford, I really can’t say. … We haven’t made any decision. Certainly, COVID plays a lot in that, if we’re allowed to.”

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What it means: Despite pandemic-related delays, Tepper said work has begun on the team’s headquarters in Rock Hill, S.C., which he believes should be ready to host training camp in three years. The Panthers will need a camp home in the interim. And if Tepper wants to put the fans first — which he said repeatedly during the call that he does — then the team should return to Wofford for camp as soon as it’s safe to do so.

What he said: “I’m not making excuses, there’s no excuses. We’re gonna do fine this year, and I think coach Rhule will do a great job. But we have had more disadvantages for a first-year coach and I hope we won’t have other disadvantages going forward.”

What it means: He’s prepared to be patient while Rhule begins his massive rebuilding project. That said, it would still be nice to have fans at BoA. Put another way: Are you listening, Gov. Cooper?

What he said (on general manager Marty Hurney’s contract): “That hasn’t come up. There’s been too much to do to have those conversations. You should ask me that question later on. Marty and I are very concentrated on doing as much as we can — and obviously, coach Rhule — in getting this football team in shape and making sure we keep the players safe and healthy starting the season. That’s all we care about right now.”

What it means: In print, Tepper’s response reads as though he were being evasive. But it didn’t come across that way on the Zoom. Tepper has become tight with the 64-year-old Hurney, who is in the final year of a contract that expires in June. It may be Hurney works alongside Rhule during his first season as an NFL head coach and then calls it a career. The sense here is that Tepper is inclined to bring Hurney back on a short-term extension, but that will depend on the Panthers’ progress this year as well as the Hurney and Rhule dynamic.

(Top photo of Cam Newton: John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)