ATLANTA — For those first few hours, David Tepper’s new colleagues were introducing themselves, watching him, sizing him up.
John Mara, a stately man whose family has owned the New York Giants for nearly a century, at one point made his way over to shake the hand of the new Carolina Panthers owner and decided he’d wait to make up his mind. Jerry Jones, the renegade oil tycoon who has owned the Dallas Cowboys since 1989, figured that on the basis that Tepper — a hedge-fund multibillionaire who pledged a record $2.275 billion to buy the Panthers — is serious about the two things most important to Jones, pro football and money, he figured they’d probably get along.
Art Rooney actually knows him — his family sold Tepper a five-percent stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 — and, more important, has some idea what the NFL is getting: a man who’s unpolished and proud of it, whose reputation as a candid and at times controversial voice has grown almost as fast as his net worth, who has repeatedly and unapologetically called out President Trump.
That’s the same Trump who declared war on the NFL last year over protesting players who knelt during the national anthem and, after the league amended its pregame anthem policy last week in what has been seen in some circles as an act of surrender, praised the league but suggested during an interview with Fox News that players who continue kneeling “shouldn’t be in the country.” The same Trump who, before the 2016 election, Tepper referred to as “demented, narcissistic and a scumbag.”
“He’s not afraid to speak his mind. That’s for sure,” Rooney said at this month’s gathering of NFL owners, and indeed Tepper’s unanimous approval by leaders of the 31 other franchises raises an interesting question: How will the NFL’s newest owner, who made his billions and found his voice as an agent of chaos, fit into a powerful but wounded sports league that prefers to avoid controversy at all costs?
Tepper, by the way, isn’t exactly a lightweight who sneaked into the league. His net worth, which Forbes values at roughly $11 billion, makes him the NFL’s second-richest franchise owner — trailing only Paul Allen, the former Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner, who has almost no involvement in matters affecting the league and rarely appears at owners meetings. Tepper once kept a massive set of brass testicles on his desk at Appaloosa Management, whose expertise trading junk bonds earned its founder $4 billion in one year alone.
During a commencement address this month at Carnegie Mellon University, where Tepper attended graduate school, he brought notes but initially refused to read from them; promised to avoid using profanity before using it anyway; indicated he wouldn’t say anything about Trump but later took a veiled shot.
“If you were expecting to hear a professional speech today,” the 60-year-old said, “you may be at the wrong commencement.”
After his approval a few days later by NFL owners, Tepper was playful with reporters and didn’t just acknowledge his personal insecurities but seemed to bask in them. Portly and bald, Tepper began two of his four questions at a news conference by pointing out the hair of two lushly coiffed reporters and later wondered aloud during a photo opportunity if he “should’ve worn a better shirt.”
“I have a great appreciation for how stupid I am,” Tepper said at one point, not exactly a statement commonly made by NFL owners, and he spent one night in Atlanta at the hotel lobby bar and later told a Charlotte Observer reporter that he celebrated his entry into American sports’ most exclusive club not with caviar and a 62-year-old Macallan but with pork rinds and strawberry milk.
He is somewhere between a cultural wrecking ball to a league mired in recent years by wide-ranging scandals and a dramatic contradiction to how it normally does business — which, regardless of dropping television ratings and decreasing overall popularity, projected last year’s annual revenue at a record $14 billion.
So here’s one question some of those franchise owners were pondering as they welcomed a new and unpredictable member into their tribe: Is it more likely that David Tepper will change the NFL, or that the NFL will change him?
As Tepper was finding his political voice, the NFL was beginning to lose the public’s confidence in its own.
Tepper, a Pittsburgh native of modest upbringing, built himself into a billionaire by 2003 by successfully gambling on the distressed debts of bankrupt companies such as Enron and WorldCom. But in 2010, his firm pocketed $7 billion on a single deal, and almost overnight, a man who occasionally berated employees and other times flung breast implants at them had become a regular personality on cable news financial shows.
“I’m just a regular upper-middle-class guy who happens to be a billionaire,” Tepper told New York Magazine in 2010. A spokesman for Tepper declined an interview request for this story.
As ordinary as a billionaire can be, Tepper drove a minivan, quoted ’80s movies and seemed to find motivation in settling old scores. He’s the type of person who, according to that magazine profile, sometimes thought about buying a restaurant just so he could fire a waiter who had been rude to him, and at a reception decades after graduation, Tepper called out a high school girlfriend by name. After Tepper’s hedge fund made $7.5 billion eight years ago after he correctly bet on a government bailout following the Great Recession, Tepper paid $43.5 million for the beachfront mansion of a former Goldman Sachs supervisor who had passed him over for promotion. Then he had the house demolished.
Around that same time, the NFL — which already was facing a growing crisis involving concussion research and the health and safety of players — was embroiled in a labor dispute with the players’ union that eventually led to the longest work stoppage in pro football history. Scandal upon high-profile scandal seemed to stack up on a league, ranging from football-related issues such as the Saints coaches awarding bounties for injuring opponents and Tom Brady’s involvement with altering the air pressure in footballs to off-field issues such as domestic violence and national anthem demonstrations.
Tepper had his own issues to sort out, namely how to spend his money. He toyed with the idea of getting himself an island or a jet or, as he was quoted as saying by New York Magazine, “a 22-year-old.” He dabbled in politics, contributing to causes and candidates on both sides of the aisle. His donation history appears to show Tepper’s leanings drift from further right a decade or so ago more toward the center — he has identified as an independent and in 2015 gave to both Sen. Charles E. Schumer and former House Speaker John Boehner — and before the 2016 election he donated more than $1 million to political action committees behind Republicans Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
As for Trump, Tepper would appear on CNBC on the eve of Election Day and refer to the Republican nominee as a candidate who “masquerades as an angel of light, but he is the father of lies.”
By then, Tepper had established himself as a willing, credible and provocative voice. Then last December, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson abruptly announced he was selling the team in response to explosive allegations of Richardson’s workplace misconduct. With another distressed company suddenly on the market, Tepper had come across an interesting opportunity to strengthen his portfolio — and his platform.
Not long after Tepper confirmed he was buying the Panthers, he appeared at the Carnegie Mellon commencement. He again called attention to his baldness, became emotional when describing the sacrifices of his mother and the physical abuse from his father, was tearful and deep and funny and awkward and progressive.
“You guys, you students — is it okay to say ‘guys?’ ” he said, concluding an address in which he frequently lost his place, stumbled over his words, leaned on a lectern with his fist on his cheek. “Students, girls, guys — just guys, girls, whatever. You students. Sorry.”
He was not, in other words, polished. Such unkempt personality and honesty is a stark contrast to a league set in its ways, emboldened by tradition and decades of success.
“If he tries to change the room on strength of personality, people will recoil from that,” one NFL owner said. “. . . If he feels he has a strong opinion, my guess is he would think he’s smarter than a lot of people in the room, and he might be right. But there’s a way of — you’re still only one vote.”
Last week, the outspoken Tepper set out on what appeared to be a brief listening tour. He visited Charlotte and met with Panthers players about the new anthem policy, and at the owners meeting when the discussion came up he was mostly silent, according to one individual present, until Goodell called on Tepper. Whatever he said that day, the individual said, was neither controversial nor memorable and then Tepper — his deal to buy the Panthers is scheduled to close in July — left the room while the conversation continued among the official group of owners.
It was around that time that Goodell left to introduce his league’s newest owner to the media, and Tepper answered a handful of questions and revealed almost nothing about his plans for the Panthers or the league. He was careful and maybe even a little secretive, the most NFL thing about him yet.
“The only thing I have a market on right now is a lack of knowledge,” Tepper said, and after the brief news conference ended, Goodell stepped over to join Tepper but blocked a large screen displaying the Panthers logo. As photographers motioned for the commissioner to move, Tepper put his hand on Goodell’s shoulder, nudging him ever so gently out of the way.