Poor service alone isn't enough to keep Richardson from NFL

John Steadman

June 09, 1993|By John Steadman

When Jerry Richardson and son Mark were last in Baltimore - a check of an appointment calendar shows it was May 14, 1990 -- a disturbing situation occurred in a downtown restaurant, Burke's Cafe, famous for food and drinks. Service was bad. It took forever. Not long enough for the Richardsons' clothes to go out of style but more time than anyone should have to spend waiting for a crab cake or sandwich.

This reporter was with them. In fact, we led the Richardsons there, in a walk up Light Street, after they expressed a desire for "Maryland seafood." They were on a tight schedule, having flown in that morning from Charlotte, N.C., with a group of Chamber of Commerce representatives for a series of information seminars about the city of Baltimore.

It was necessary that the Richardsons hurry back to the Harbor )) Court Hotel to hear a discussion by Arnold Kleiner, the WMAR-TV executive, who was listed on the agenda to speak about the workings of Baltimore's renaissance program.

But, Burke's, which enjoys a reputation for prompt service, was either having problems that morning in the kitchen or just experiencing an off-day.

Such a condition has been known to happen to the best of us -- restaurants, people and even robots. The incident comes to mind now after charges have been leveled that the Denny's restaurant chain, which Richardson operates as the executive head of TW Services, discriminates against minorities.

The complaints, if proven in the racial context, could have serious ramifications for Richardson's chances of acquiring a football team for Charlotte. If Richardson/TW Services practices racism then the National Football League, in awarding two expansion franchises this fall, will separate itself from any such involvement.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson maintained the Richardsons didn't deserve a team because of the allegations that have surfaced, so what happened in a fast-food outlet conceivably could jeopardize Richardson's chances of qualifying for an NFL club. Race is a sensitive subject and the NFL wouldn't dare do business with any man or organization so tainted.

Part of the controversy evolved as a result of claims by six black Secret Service agents that in April they entered a Denny's restaurant in Annapolis to eat but were passed over, virtually ignored, while a similar group of white Secret Service agents were served breakfast.

Other allegations, before and since, have been made about blacks receiving unfair treatment at Denny's outlets in California and Virginia.

Jackson mentioned it was improper for the league to consider awarding a team to the head of a corporation that has treated blacks unfairly. However, a strong defense has come to Richardson from Kelly Alexander, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Jackson, meanwhile, says the Rainbow Commission on Fairness Athletics will take a close look at TW Services and report the findings to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

If Jackson wants to interview any of Richardson's former teammates with the Baltimore Colts, where he played in 1959 and 1960, it's doubtful he'll produce any evidence that Richardson ever expressed anti-black feelings in his personal relationships.

To the contrary, he had an excellent rapport with black players during his two-year stay with the Colts -- before Richardson took his winning, though modest, share of the 1959 championship game and bought half-interest in a Hardee's franchise in Spartanburg, S.C.

From such a humble beginning, with an original investment of $4,674.44, he has emerged as a highly successful national business leader, a man involved in civic causes.

Richardson has more than 120,000 employees on his various company payrolls, a percentage of them black, so it's difficult to build a case that he's any kind of bigot. If Richardson is a racist, the NFL can't award him a franchise. Plain and simple.

From the standpoint of individual fairness, Richardson can hardly be held personally responsible for the actions of an employee who, either by intent or rudeness, has violated the civil rights of a customer.

Richardson, no doubt, would like for the official verdict to be a case of slow service in what is supposed to be a fast-food enterprise. That can be corrected by either improving the system or firing the offending worker or workers.

It shouldn't cost him the right to own a team -- unless proven guilty.

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