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Will the NFL consider a minority owner for the Carolina Panthers?

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No NFL team has ever had an African-American principal owner. Will that change now that Jerry Richardson is selling the Panthers?

Green Bay Packers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Now that their season is dust after the Wild Card Round loss at New Orleans, the Carolina Panthers’ current primary orbit has shifted to this: Who will exiting owner Jerry Richardson choose as a buyer and what is the NFL’s influence in the process?

The league is reticent about it. I reached out on Tuesday morning to Eric Grubman, an NFL executive vice president who has vast experience in NFL franchise relocations and sales, and the topic was too hot for him to touch. I spoke to three NFL owners who also scurried from the matter, respecting Richardson’s troubles, the league’s investigation of them, and the entire tangled selling/purchasing ballet.

On Dec. 17, Richardson announced he was selling the team amid workplace misconduct allegations, including sexually suggestive remarks and a racial slur directed toward employees.

The art of the Panthers deal is underway.

Will it include African-American bidders and will they get a fair shot?

In the league’s nearly 100-year history, it has never included an African-American principal owner. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, a Pakistani-American, became the NFL’s only minority principal owner in 2011.

“I think this is the time for an African-American to make a heck of a run at it,” said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes NFL diversity.

If African-American businessmen knew 20 years ago what they know now about NFL franchises and financial landscapes, it would have already happened, Willie Lanier said.

“When you are talking about capital and opportunity, there have been many qualified African-American candidates then and now,” Lanier, an NFL Hall of Fame linebacker and wealth management/venture capitalist expert, said. “Some of the strongest potential candidates over the last 20 years decided not to pursue this but would have if they had hindsight on the league’s growth in franchise value.”

Lanier is talking about the fact that Richardson and his investors paid $206 million in 1993 for the Panthers. They are expected to sell for at least $2.3 billion.

The league’s players are 70 percent African-American. Many of them I have spoken to about this subject do not think it’s a problem with the pool of candidates, but a specific mindset problem from the owners and the league office, all top-down.

They wonder why the owners do not have a type of Rooney Rule in place that forces owners selling to strongly review African-American candidates. The Rooney Rule currently in effect demands owners interview at least one minority candidate before selecting a new head coach.

But Lanier has been involved behind the scenes for decades in NFL ownership deals and has a differing, insider view. He said African-American ownership has been close before and remains viable.

“I honestly don’t think it’s a about race, it’s about capital and opportunity,” Lanier said. “We came very close to Reggie Fowler becoming the Minnesota Vikings owner a few years ago. There are only 32 of these. They do not often become available. I believe, I know, there are people, individuals in this league who instigate change. I was the first African-American middle linebacker in the league (1967 with the Kansas City Chiefs). I am a product of change of thought. People like Al Davis and Lamar Hunt laid the foundation for inclusive thinking and we’ve seen it applied among head coaches, assistants and front office personnel.”

But not among ownership.

African-Americans involved in the league and beyond say that Richardson selling the franchise to an African-American buyer after racially insensitive charges against him would be a bold and fitting step. Lanier insists there are non-African Americans across the NFL spectrum who feel the same way who add, simply, that it is time.

“I do think the Carolina process will be a fair one looking for qualified ownership regardless of race, sex or origin,” Lanier said. “As time has grown, there are new beginnings and we are in a different place, with change rapidly unfolding. There is more dialogue in this process than ever.”

But would Richardson actually do it?

Is the league advocating it?

And can either hide behind the notion that there are simply no worthy African-American candidates?

“Well, I do know people who could be interested and who are more than qualified,” Lanier said. “There are a number of African-Americans who have the capital and the structure to own an NFL team. There is no question about that. It’s time. It would be significant to have that next step — ownership.”