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Original Issue


The stakes are high in the NFL's probe of Richardson's conduct—even if he's on the way out

ON SUNDAY, the same day SI reported that Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson had allegedly engaged in sexual harassment and inappropriate physical contact with women employed by the team, he said on Carolina's website that he will sell the franchise at the end of the season. Hours before that post, the NFL had announced that it would conduct an investigation into the allegations. Despite Richardson's expressed intention to exit, it is in the league's best interest to push hard on the investigation—and for commissioner Roger Goodell (near right, with Richardson) to keep a vote on terminating Richardson's ownership as an option. Here are some of the reasons why:

• Richardson's announcement is not binding. There are many reasons a business sale can falter, including failure to find an acceptable offer or an owner's change of heart. Richardson's pledge to "put the team up for sale" does not mean anything more than what it says.

• Even if Richardson does sell the team, the process could drag on and on. As he says, "we will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played." If the season ended today, Carolina (10--4) would have one of the two NFC wild-card spots and would be playing into 2018. Several months will likely pass until the team is in the hands of new owners. Prospective buyers could take weeks to scrutinize financial records; Richardson would weigh bids; the NFL would carefully review suitors. In short, a change in NFL ownership could take months, keeping the allegations against Richardson in the news.

• Richardson's quick decision to sell could lead some NFL officials to wonder if he is trying to leave before even more explosive allegations emerge. Those who take that view will have a deep interest in grasping all the facts before they leak out.

• It's possible that Richardson isn't the only Panthers official responsible for some of the alleged misconduct. Did other team executives facilitate wrongdoing or take steps to conceal it? If so, Carolina could face fines, suspensions or the forfeiture of draft picks.

• The NFL may be concerned that the allegations against Richardson aren't the last against one of its owners in the #MeToo era. While nondisclosure agreements may limit future revelations of potentially damaging information, the league would be smart to thoroughly investigate the first case and develop a game plan on how to address any claims down the road.

In theory, the findings of the probe could prompt a vote on expelling Richardson under Article VIII of the NFL constitution, which allows the commissioner or member of the Executive Committee to bring charges against an owner for conduct detrimental to the league. If supported by at least three-fourths of the other principal owners, ownership in a team can be terminated.

Would the NFL consider banishing Richardson in much the same way the NBA banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, after his racist remarks were caught on tape? Would NFL owners want to set a precedent that allegations of sexual misconduct would force one of their members either to sell his team or to have his ownership terminated? The story of Richardson's alleged misconduct won't likely end soon.