By Dan Bernstein
Something seems to happen to NFL coaches over time that erodes their ability to think and react normally to anything outside their tight spheres of influence.
It must be some incongruous combination of hubris and cowardice, willful ignorance and self-preservation instinct, with actions and words defined by the Belichick-ian ideal of never giving anyone any information of any kind. It’s something less than human after a while, and the behavior tends to manifest itself at the most serious times, when larger reality bursts the football bubble.
The reports of sexual misconduct and inappropriate workplace behavior by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson have done just that, causing two more coaches to sputter and stammer all over themselves once again. Each should have known such straightforward questions were coming. That former Panthers coach John Fox and current coach Ron Rivera appeared so unprepared and standoffishly unempathetic no longer surprises us, but still disappoints.
Here was Fox in all his patently obtuse glory, proclaiming proudly his lack of awareness or concern Monday. “I don’t know the ins and outs,” he said. “I don’t have time to see all the intricacies. I don’t know the stories, don’t really want to know the stories. I can just tell you my dealings with him were all very, very positive. I’ve got nothing but good things in my dealings with him.”
That’s because he never asked to shave your legs, John. Never insisted you model tight jeans for him when asked, and never groped you when he made sure it was his job to buckle your seat belt for you.
Very positive, indeed. And you don’t want to know anything else. I can only imagine how that makes both former and current co-workers feel about where one of the most powerful people in the organization stands on such issues. Not to mention the abject coldness of touting “nothing but good things” in the face of allegations damning enough to result in Richardson’s immediate departure from the team, a statement that flouts a critical rule of crisis public relations: never brag about successes in an attempt to mitigate failure. It’s the equivalent of “most of our airplanes don’t explode,” “only a few containers of baby formula contained uranium” or “the delivery drivers didn’t murder every family.”
So let’s see how Rivera was doing around the same time Fox was speaking. I’ll spoil the suspense for you by saying… not well.
“At the end of the day, who am I to judge?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t want to cast any doubt on anything until the investigation is complete,” he added, walking down the middle of the road despite the existence of many thousands of dollars paid out by Richardson as hush-money to settle multiple civil lawsuits. Rivera said he and Richardson talked Sunday and “he was terrific in terms of our conversation.”
Great, Ron. Nice to know. We can probably assume he also didn’t ask you to massage his feet or give you a backrub that explored well down below your waistline. Pretty sure he also didn’t refer to you by a racial slur then, as he once did a Panthers’ scout.
Let’s contrast these oafish responses from that of a coach in a similar situation just three years ago, when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was similarly forced to sell his franchise after a pattern of disturbing behavior was revealed, also involving a history of sex harassment and racism. Here was Doc Rivers in the immediate aftermath.
“I’d just like to reiterate how disappointed I am in our — in the comments attributed to our owner,” Rivers said, when first meeting with reporters after the news surfaced. “I can’t tell you how upset I am, our players are. There’s a lot of people involved in this… when you’re around all these people (in the organization), you realize they’re just as upset and embarrassed. That’s the thing I got from them. They didn’t sign on for this, but they’re part of this.”
That shows awareness, sensitivity and leadership, things too many people in the NFL apparently don’t care enough to understand.