As a general rule, sports team owners should leave the fashion tips to Tim Gunn.
Sure, most of them are well-dressed whenever they step out in public. But they’re also at least twice as old as their players. And as anyone who has seen recent photo of Raiders boss Al Davis knows, what might have been hip when he was a kid won’t cut it with kids today.
For that reason alone, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson should have known better than to wade across the generational minefield and tell top-draft pick and potential franchise savior Cam Newton to stay out of tattoo parlors and keep his hair short. The only thing Richardson accomplished by telling Newton how to look was to make himself look grumpy. .
During an appearance the “Charlie Rose Show,” the Panthers owner recalled a conversation he had with Newton last spring.
“He was dressed perfectly. I said, `Do you have any tattoos.’ He said, `No sir, I don’t have any.’ I said, `Do you have any piercings?’ He said, `No sir.’ I said, `We want to keep it that way.’ “
A moment later, the host weighed in. “You sound like Lombardi,” Rose said.
“No,” Richardson demurred, “I just sound reasonable to me.”
Actually, Richardson sounded exactly like the imperious, 75-year-old multimillionaire businessman that he is. Never mind that scores of players in the league have tattoos, including several of Carolina’s most popular ones, or that more than a few Panther fans are among the 45 million Americans sporting _ as youngsters call it _ body art.
When you own the franchise and you’re trying to sell tickets for a team that went 2-14 last season and made the playoffs four times since being purchased in 1995, you can suggest players help out by doing just about anything. Former Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley tried it. He paid players to grow mustaches, then shave them off and once offered pitcher Vida Blue a few hundred bucks to change his first name to “True.”
Blue considered the deal for a heartbeat. “If you like the name so much,” he said, “why don’t you call yourself True O. Finley?”
Richardson’s fashion tip carried just as much weight. He couldn’t fire Newton even if his rookie quarterback arrived at practice the next day painted up like Jeremy Shockey or Steve Smith _ two of Carolina’s more colorful body artists. Not unless he was going to unload everyone else with a tattoo. And considering the long and undistinguished history owners have had imposing dress codes and their mores on players, even Richardson was too smart for that.
In maybe the most unfortunate case, the late Marge Schott once was asked whether any of her Cincinnati Reds ballplayers could wear earrings. “Only fruits wear earrings,” she replied. Schott also banned long hair, facial hair of any kind and announced in mid-season that she would fire manager Davey Johnson _ and did, even after he took the ballclub to the 1995 National League Championship Series _ mostly because she disapproved of Johnson living with his fiancee (they married later that year).
Fortunately, Richardson is not that far out of touch, even though dispatches from the NFL labor talks occasionally had some players wondering.
It was said that he treated player reps, including star quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, so dismissively during one session that several owners apologized afterward. In that same meeting, Sean Morey, who retired because of concussions but remained part of the players’ bargaining unit, brought up the topic of injuries and how they shortened careers. Richardson listened impassively, then reportedly replied, `You guys made so much … money, if you played three years in the NFL, you should own your own … team.”
Richardson managed to do that after playing just one season with the Baltimore Colts, in 1959-60. He quit the following year after a dispute over a $250 raise and went on to make a fortune in the fast-food business.
Exactly why he figures tattoos are bad for his latest venture is anyone’s guess. Attitudes have shifted. The few people from Richardson’s generation sporting them likely got them while serving in the military or in prison. But the numbers jump to nearly 30 percent in the generation after his, and nearly 40 percent by the time you drill down into that desirable 18-25 demographic the league is always chasing.
One thing Richardson must have learned, but appears to have forgotten, is that the customer is always right.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at: http:twitter.com/JimLitke.