CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Panthers must decide how Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy's conviction on charges of assault on a female and communicating threats will impact his long-term future in Carolina.
Carolina made Hardy its franchise player in March, signing him to a one-year, $13.1 million deal after a 15-sack season. But talks of a long-term deal fizzled after Hardy was first arrested May 13 for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her after she said he ''snapped'' in his apartment following a night of partying.
The Panthers could release Hardy for conduct detrimental to the team, but there's no guarantee they'd recoup his hefty salary.
The Panthers issued a statement after Tuesday night's guilty verdict saying they respect the legal process and don't have a comment right now. Hardy, sentenced to a suspended 60-day jail sentence and given 18 months of probation, has appealed the conviction and will have a jury trial at a later date.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson declined comment to The Associated Press regarding Hardy's future.
But some former Panthers said the guilty verdict won't sit well with Richardson, who has shied away from signing players who might shed a negative light on the organization.
Former defensive end Mike Rucker said the team is naturally sensitive to the topic of domestic violence since the Rae Carruth ordeal. Carruth, a former Panthers wide receiver, was found guilty in 2001 of conspiring to murder his girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who was carrying his child. Carruth was sentenced to 18 to 24 years and remains in prison.
''This subject hits home for everybody that has been around the organization or followed the organization from the beginning,'' Rucker said. ''If you were around during that (Carruth) period of time it might be in the back of your mind, but it's definitely still there.''
The Panthers can't sign Hardy to an extension until after the season. That deadline passed Tuesday, about the same time the accuser in the domestic abuse bench trial talked on the stand. She said Hardy beat her up and threatened to kill her following a disagreement about her brief relationship with rapper Nelly.
''He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,'' said the 24-year-old accuser, who is a cocktail waitress in Charlotte. ''I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said just, `Do it. Kill me.'''
Bill Polian, who served as Carolina's general manager from 1994-97, said if he were making the calls the conviction would ''absolutely'' have an impact on whether Hardy would get a long-term contract.
''It's a very serious issue and one they have to deal with,'' Polian said.
Center Frank Garcia, who played with the Panthers in the late `90s, said he believes Tuesday's guilty verdict could keep the team from signing Hardy to a long-term deal.
In fact, Garcia isn't entirely convinced Hardy makes it to this season.
''I think Jerry Richardson is turning in his bed deciding what decision to make right now,'' Garcia said. ''And I think it's a 50-50 proposition. ... It has to be a disturbing thing for him and a disturbing thing for the Carolina Panthers.''
Garcia said the Panthers have been trying to clean up their image ever since the Carruth ordeal.
Another concern with Hardy is the accuser's statement she used cocaine the night Hardy assaulted her, leaving the team to wonder about the people he associates with off the field.
''Jerry Richardson doesn't mess around,'' Garcia said. ''He wants a clean image. And we've seen it time and time again where they've bypassed quality free agents - guys who might have been able to come in and make an impact - just because of their image or something in their background.''
Coincidentally, Hardy's first court appearance in May came on the same day the Panthers hosted a breakfast at their stadium for ''Men For Change,'' a group that serves victims of domestic violence.
Polian said he isn't sure if the Panthers would be more sensitive to domestic violence issues than other NFL teams.
''The bottom line is it's an awful situation,'' Polian said. ''A person with incredible strength that is assaulting woman. That's just unacceptable.''
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