I had the privilege of appearing this past week on a Charlotte radio station to promote my just-launched memoir about life in the grip of the NFL as the son of a Hall-of-Famer and life-long pro football stalwart. The interview happened less than 24-hours after the latest round of news about Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and his alleged harassment of female employees.
News of Mr. Richardson’s behavior first broke around the 2017 holidays, prompting Mr. Richardson to sell the team due to the surfacing allegations. I was shocked. My father had worked with Mr. Richardson to help form the Panthers franchise. Both my parents had great respect for him. The respect was mutual. Mr. Richardson appointed my father to be the Panther’s first president. After my dad’s retirement, the organization erected a life-size statue of him outside the stadium. . .
. . . the same kind of statue erected of Mr. Richardson, which some now believe must come down if the allegations of his sexual harassment are true.
So when I fielded the question from the radio hosts this week, it came at me hot. “Based on the new allegations against Jerry Richardson, should his statue come down?” I had only heard about the latest developments. I had not yet read his primary accuser’s open letter published in Sports Illustrated a day earlier. Regardless, I took a deep breath before responding, knowing full well what my answer was, but also uncertain about how to say it.
My challenge during the radio interview, as it is now, stems from my own story. You see, at the hands of a revered figure in the NFL, I experienced childhood abuse – at a level probably unacceptable for the period, and certainly not now. The consequences have been undeniable for decades, intensified by the aura of the NFL: insomnia, anxiety and shame. These effects can feel crushing to someone caught between the rock and the hard place: the toxic commitment to silence pressed against the terrifying step of telling the story.
That’s why the radio host’s question hit the bone. For if Mr. Richardson’s statue should come down, the question must be asked. Should my father’s come down also?
Through my personal journey, I’ve come to believe that no person or group can claim to have the market cornered on what it’s like to be a victim, a word I don’t care for much. I can’t claim to know another’s experience. But I do claim mine. It’s at the core of my memoir. And it is from this place that I offer my two-cents about Mr. Richardson’s statue.
The corresponding totem for me is not my father’s Carolina statue or his Hall-of-Fame bust in Canton. It’s his Hall-of-Fame ring, which came to me after his death through a set of upsetting developments. I understand that such symbols can keep a victim’s wounds continually fresh. I empathize with the argument that all reminders of the perpetrator must be erased.
That was my reaction to my father’s ring for quite some time. My first reaction was to sell it, claiming the proceeds as reparation. Deeming that too pedestrian, I fanaticized about healing ceremonies, dropping it from a boat into the ocean or from a chartered plane into the mountains. I initiated steps to bury it in concrete.
What I eventually did with the ring is less important than what I learned, which includes among other things that reacting and healing are two different things. The former is a release, a short-lived satisfaction that often has its own unintended consequences. Healing from abuse is a long path from truth to reconciliation. It is not a straight line and it involves more than a few steps. First, harm must be halted. Then truth must be told. From there, what unfolds is like the stages of loss, a process of anger, mourning and eventually acceptance and wisdom.
Had I done with the ring what I initially set out to do, I would have missed important steps in the process.
As things stand today, I have no voice in what becomes of my father’s Panther statue or his Hall-of-Fame bust. But I did have a choice with his ring, and I’m better off having made my choice from a place of healing and acceptance rather than rage and revenge. Best of all, I nopw have a relationship with my father I can now cherish, no matter that it came after his death. Such is the gift of forgiveness.
And so I return to Mr. Richardson’s statue. With apologies for drawing on football metaphors, as is my habit, I recommend a game plan. It starts with supporting without penalty or recrimination those who have suffered. At the top of that list are the women who were in harm’s way. That list includes others too, all the way down to Carolina’s football fans whose passion for the greatest team sport ever created is being tested. I imagine some are confused and conflicted by the news of Mr. Richardson’s behavior, considering the positive contributions he has made to the local community.
Is it untoward to consider the Panther team and its fans in this situation? I don’t think so. Speaking from experience, these issues are not as black and white as they first seem. I recommend allowing the healing process to unfold, transparently and broadly. Perhaps at the end of the day, the statue should still come down. But don’t render that decision while the iron is hot.
In closing, I offer this quote from the quote-book I’ve been amassing over 50 years as a football fanatic, although this one is not from football. It’s from one of last century’s unsung champions of the woman’s voice, Anne Morrow Lindberg, who knew something about suffering herself. She wrote this:
If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise . . . To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
To my fellow football fanatics in Charlotte, don’t rush through this. And don’t sweep it under the rug either. There’s wisdom to learn here for all concerned.