Jerry Richardson, Cam Newton and the Color of Change

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 were a 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’s the owner who told number-one draft pick quarterback Cam Newton that grooming and servility are prerequisites for success. On The Charlie Rose ShowRichardson 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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.


[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]



11 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Steve Smith

A quick Google search will also tell you that Steve Smith has been the most visible Panther for a decade. He's black and has tattoos. He's even done commercials for Richardson's fast food restaurants.

This story is nonsense, because it is so easy to find anecdotal evidence for one's preconceived opinions.

The Plantation System

This is no difference from sharecropping...

Quarterback Double Standards

Much has been made about the double standards issued to franchise quarterbacks and other players. Character and image seem to be perceived as much more important for QBs than other players. This must only be more true for players that will represent the franchise - that being the perceived value of character. I am not sure if the issue is as racial motivated given the prominence of Steve Smith as much as some hyperstandard for quarterbacks.

Well done Sir!

"No word if he then checked Newton’s gums."

"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."

typical zarin...

seeing an issue where there isnt one, making something out of nothing.

and well said clayton. what do you say about steve smith's tattoos zarin?

and zarin, what do you say about joe girardi not wanting the yankees to have facial hair? is that 'racist' to you as well, you big drama queen?


>>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.

True, but players are oft seen out of uniform. Many seem addicted to being photographed without their shirts on as well.. or even no clothes at all (Ochocinco).

Demagogue Dave

Never one to miss a smear, Demagogue Dave has defamed Richardson. Have you no sense of shame Demagogue Dave?

If you read the rest of the ESPN link, you'll see that in an earlier interview, Richardson told Shockey he didn't like his tattoos. Seems pretty consistent to me. I guess Richardson didn't ask to have them surgically removed-- what a racist!

Charlie Rose compared him to Lombardi, who had a much stricter rules on appearance, and was way ahead of his time on race (he defended one of his black players dating a white woman).

"I'm not a choirboy. I've never said I was. And I don't want a roster of 53 choirboys," he told the newspaper in April. "I told Jeremy Shockey, 'Don't change your personality. It'll be good for the team. I could do without the tattoos, though."

In "The Charlie Rose Show" interview, Richardson also said that Newton said he was thinking about growing out his hair. Richardson said he responded, "I think you have a very nice haircut."

When Charlie Rose told Richardson he sounded like Vince Lombardi, the Panthers owner responded: "I think I sound reasonable."

thanks for posting for tornado

i like how zarin always writes about his pet causes without any sources and i thank you for posting a source, especially a source that throws zarin's article out the window.

fact check zarin.

not to mention...

lombardi is considered a great guy in sports circles so i dont know why rose said that. I would take lombardi over charlie rose any day.

why not just enact a policy?

Great article again, Dave.

Why not a simple team policy by Richardson? His means of merely criticizing certain players for their appearance just leaves him wide open for these types of accusations. All he has to do is set a team policy of removing/covering tattoos, certain length of hair cuts, etc. As long as there's no official policy, Cam Newton can get all the tattoos he wants and grow dreads like he's from East Oakland, and there's not a damn thing Richardson can do about it other than cut him, in which he'll gladly sign somewhere else.


Nice article, and great way to put the Black Panthers in the last paragraph.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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