Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson broke down in tears Wednesday night as he addressed what critics have called a lenient stance regarding defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted of domestic violence in July and is currently appealing the verdict.
"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society,'' Richardson said at a gala honoring him with the Echo Award Against Indifference. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.
"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."
The speech came two days after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was released and suspended indefinitely by the NFL after a video was released showing him punching then-fiancée Janay Rice in an Atlantic City, N.J., casino elevator. It came on the day Hardy was given an excused absence from practice to meet with the attorney who is handling his case. And it came on the heels of several local news organizations criticizing Richardson and the Panthers for not disciplining Hardy.
Hardy was found guilty on July 15 of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend in May. He has appealed the verdict with a court date set for Nov. 17, although his attorney said the case likely won't be heard until sometime in 2015, after the season ends.
Neither the league nor the Panthers have disciplined Hardy. The league announced a new disciplinary policy last month for domestic violence that includes a six-game suspension for a first-time offender.
An NFL spokesman told ESPN.com that Hardy's case remains under review, but reiterated it has "not been resolved by the court.''
Coach Ron Rivera said Hardy's excused absence from practice Wednesday was not tied to any potential discipline from the NFL for Hardy's case. Hardy's attorney, Chris Fialko, said he had a meeting with his client but did not elaborate.
Rivera said Hardy would play in Sunday's home opener against Detroit if he returned to practice on Thursday as expected and was prepared for the game plan.
"There's a lot of things going on,'' Rivera said. "I get that. I understand that. But at the same time we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice]. And we're going from there.
"I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?''
Rivera later said he was not skirting the issue or hiding it from his team. He said he has addressed what is happening around the league off the field as he always does.
"I'm trying not to bury it. I'm trying not to hide from it as far as dealing with the players,'' Rivera said. "I'm trying to make sure they understand the serious nature of what's happening. But at the same time we do have a job we have to do as well.''
Asked if he believed the team made the right decision in not disciplining Hardy when he initially was found guilty, in light of what happened with Rice, Rivera said, "We're going through the process. While we're in the process, we're not going to comment about the situation.''
Hardy led the team in sacks last season with 15 and had one in Sunday's season-opening 20-14 victory at Tampa Bay. The Panthers gave him the franchise tag for this season, guaranteeing him $13.1 million.
If the appeal isn't heard until after the season, as expected, the Panthers are in a position where they would never have to discipline Hardy if he is found guilty again because they could simply choose not to re-sign him.