CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Houston Texans owner Bob McNair came to Jerry Richardson's defense Sunday, saying the Panthers owner could have been joking when he made sexual and racial comments that led to significant financial settlements and ultimately resulted in him selling the team.
"I hope this thing turns out that he's innocent. They alleged. I don't know," McNair said at the NFL annual meetings. "Some of the comments he might have made could have been made jokingly and misunderstood. I'm sure he didn't mean to offend anybody."
The league is investigating Richardson for workplace misconduct after an explosive Sports Illustrated article in December detailed four settlements Richardson made with former employees, including a former African-American scout who accused Richardson of using a racial epithet.
The SI article also alleged Richardson engaged in a pattern of sexually suggestive language and behavior with some female employees, admiring them on "Jeans Day" and even offering to shave their legs.
One former employee told SI Richardson's actions were taken as "more of a creepy-old-man thing than a threat."
McNair said his sense is Richardson regrets agreeing to the settlements rather than attempting to shoot down the allegations.
"Sometimes people choose to try to make something go away rather than fighting it. I think his regret is he didn't fight some of these things," McNair said.
"We get confronted with it, too, where people will allege something. They get lawyers and what they do is come out and threaten you and your legal counsel and your insurance people say, 'Well, it's going to cost you X-number millions of dollars to defend this. And if we can settle it for this …'"
Richardson has not addressed the allegations, which were not mentioned in his Dec. 17 announcement that he was selling the team. Richardson declined comment when approached by two Observer reporters at Bank of America Stadium in December.
McNair apologized in October for telling fellow owners and executives at the league's fall meetings that they "can't have the inmates running the prison," in reference to players' national anthem protests.
Richardson is not attending this week's meetings at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando. Chief operating officer Tina Becker, who assumed Richardson's day-to-day responsibilities in December, will represent the Panthers on voting matters and other league business.
Owners will not vote on the Panthers' sale this week, and McNair said it's possible Richardson is not ready to present a single bidder in time for the May 21-23 meetings in Atlanta.
"I think there are several bidders. But you have to go through the screening process and what have you," McNair said. "And then after the Panthers determine they have someone they would like to sell to, then the league does their own investigation. And that takes a little while. Whether that would be done by May or not, I don't know."
The nature of Charleston bidder Ben Navarro's business enterprise has sparked speculation that owners might have an issue with the debt collection piece of it.
Navarro started a consumer finance company that boasts the ninth largest VISA/Mastercard credit card accounts, and includes a division that purchases and manages consumer debt.
But McNair sounded bullish on Navarro as a potential owner.
"He is a very big philanthropist. He has underwritten schools for inner-city kids. He's done a lot of good things," McNair said. "His business is a legitimate business. For me, that wouldn't be a problem. I appreciate the fact that he is so generous in the community."
McNair, who lives in Kiawah Island, S.C., part of the year and has business ventures in South Carolina, said he'd never met Navarro, who moved to Charleston in 2004.