CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The NFL made it clear Thursday it isn't forcing Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to sell the team while he is under investigation for sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said during a conference call that "there was no pressure from the league on Mr. Richardson" to sell his team . Lockhart said Richardson "came to the conclusion over that weekend that putting his team up for sale was what he wanted to do. We found out about it shortly before the announcement came out."
The NFL plans to hire an outside counsel to conduct the Richardson investigation, but a final decision has not been made on which firm.
Lockhart said the league didn't know about the allegations against Richardson until Friday, the same day the Panthers put out a stunning news release first announcing its own investigation of Richardson's alleged workplace misconduct. That was followed on Sunday by a Sports Illustrated report that detailed Richardson's alleged misconduct.
Lockhart said the NFL is expecting full cooperation from the Panthers.
There is a huge concern among the fan base that new ownership might move the team from Charlotte.
"The league, as we have said in a number of different contexts, our first choice is always for franchise stability," Lockhart said. "The franchise in Carolina has been successful both on the field and from a community impact."
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he wants to see the team stay in Charlotte, and added he planned to call local Charlotte officials to discuss what he can do from a state government perspective.
"I think the Panthers are important to North Carolina and to the economy," Cooper said. "I don't see any reason why they should be moved anywhere else. I would certainly prefer people from North Carolina to own the Panthers but obviously we can't control that. But I am going to discuss with officials in Charlotte what steps we should take. We certainly want to be encouraging to the Panthers to stay in North Carolina and there is no reason to believe that they're going anywhere."
There have already been some potential buyers who have come forward to express interest in buying the Panthers.
The NFL outlined some of rules by which the Panthers franchise, located in downtown Charlotte, would change hands under new ownership.
— A new controlling owner is required to individually own at least 30 percent of equity. (Most owners typically own more than that, and some own 100 percent).
— A new owner needs to be able to demonstrate financial wherewithal to acquire and effectively operate the team.
— A new owner must have full voting control over all matters involving club and stadium, all football operations.
— The new owner cannot exhaust his or her (total) financial resources to make a bare minimum equity (acquisition).
— A new owner is limited to a maximum of $250 million in total debt related to the club. Other debt is permitted beyond that debt ceiling, but it has to be collateralized by non-football assets.
—The payment must be paid in cash or financed.
— A new ownership group is limited to a maximum of 25 co-owners.
— A public company or not-for-profit can't buy the team.
—All owners must be approved by three-quarters (24 of 32) of member clubs.
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was in the meeting Sunday night when Richardson informed team captains he is selling the team.
"I think guys were bummed because what he has meant to a lot of guys in this locker room," Kuechly said. "Just how he has taken care of guys. Everyone has a different story to tell. And I think all of the captains in that room have a positive story to tell."
Richardson has stepped away from day-to-day operations, and the Panthers hired Tina Becker as its new COO, and given her full control of the organization.
Kuechly said the best way to "send him off" would be for the Panthers to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history before Richardson plans to sell the team after the season.
AP Writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.