The Carolina Panthers off-season of transition reached its apotheosis last week, with the apparent confirmation of former Pittsburgh Steelers minority-stakeholder David Tepper as the team’s new owner.
On the surface, Tepper appears not to be terribly dissimilar from a plurality of his peers in a league-ownership capacity. Fans can be forgiven for seeing a sixty-year-old white male billionaire hedge fund manager and not leaping to the conclusion that this constitutes an out-of-the-box development. And yet, there is much in Tepper’s biography to suggest that he is, at a minimum, worlds apart from disgraced former owner Jerry Richardson, and that he may be a great asset to both the league and the community.
Tepper was raised a working-class kid in Pittsburgh and worked his way through college at Carnegie Mellon. He went to work for Goldman Sachs but, according to at least one account, left the firm following an impasse in which he refused to sign off on a transaction he judged to be ethically concerning. He went on to found his own hedge fund, Appaloosa Management, in 1993, and over the ensuing decades accumulated Croesus-like wealth. He became renowned for his philanthropy, including more than $125 million in donations to his alma mater.
Tepper has repeatedly made his feelings known about our current president, and those feelings can best be characterized as unvarnished contempt. In an interview with CNBC shortly before the 2016 election, he portrayed the contest in the following terms: “You have one person with questionable judgment and the other person may be demented, narcissistic, and a scumbag. Not saying which one’s which. You can make your own decision on that.”
He has subsequently clarified that Donald Trump is the demented, narcissistic scumbag in this equation, as though that was in doubt.
This past week, Tepper made news as the commencement speaker at Carnegie Mellon, giving a bracingly personal and moving speech during which he both lauded his father’s influence and acknowledged that he had suffered physical abuse at his hands. Tepper, himself the father of three daughters, placed the abuse in context (“I’m sure it was a cycle that he got from his father, and his father got from his father”) while also reckoning with the pain and misery of the experience (“In my young life, there was nothing more terrifying. There was no greater adversity, but I prayed to God that I would never be the same to my children.”).
Tepper went on to describe breaking the cycle of abuse within his own family as his proudest achievement. Later, he discussed the importance of treating individuals from all walks of life with equal respect, doubling down on an emphasis on fair treatment of women in the workplace and otherwise. Words are not deeds, and it will remain to be seen if Tepper maintains his high-minded ideals, but coming out of the cringe-worthy revelations that characterized the final days of Jerry Richardson’s tenure as owner, Tepper’s sentiments reveal a man at least canny enough to recognize the public relations renovation job inherited by any new Panthers owner.
Between the lines, it’s difficult to say what Tepper’s experience as a minority owner of the Steelers will afford him, but in terms of a model organization, there is none better league-wide this side of Philadelphia and New England. In many ways, the Panthers and Steelers have long been linked organizations, dating back to original coach Dom Capers and his remaking of the Steelers signature 3–4 zone blitz scheme in Charlotte during the mid-nineties. Both teams have traditionally favored a hard-nosed, lunch-pail approach to the game, with an emphasis on dominant line play and building through the draft. On the surface, the fit appears to be a natural one.
Finally, and arguably most important, Tepper has given every indication that he is committed to keeping the Panthers in North Carolina long-term. When Richardson was stripped of the franchise and the team was suddenly placed on the auction block, it raised the possibility that the next owner could purchase the team with an eye toward greener pastures. The organization faces important questions about the viability of its current stadium, but with Tepper at the helm, any lingering concerns about the nightmare scenario of abandonment appear to be quashed.
It has been a busy, even manic, offseason for the Panthers, with a newly restored GM, new coordinators on both offense and defense, and now a new owner. The bar to replace the previous one was frankly very low, but by initial appearances, Panthers fans should feel optimistic about this latest turn of the wheel. As my colleague recently discussed, it is only too possible for one misplaced malefactor to completely wreck an otherwise proud franchise. David Tepper seems extremely unlikely to fit that bill.