Two summers ago, I went to Cleveland. Yes, Joakim Noah, people do actually choose to embark on a trip to Cleveland.
Since I’m also a fan of sports not named football, every summer I try to knock a ballpark off my list (aside: if you’re a baseball fan, drop whatever you’re doing and visit San Francisco right now, home of the best ballpark in the land). In Cleveland, I went for baseball, I stayed (well, one night) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame down the road.
It was early August, that time in the football calendar when hope is a highly addictive drug. And everywhere — dammit, everywhere — Browns jerseys walked the street.
We can poke fun at the Browns and their Factory of Sadness, and their team that just generally can’t get out of its own way. But much like Buffalo, this is a town that cares so deeply, but has been rewarded with so little, and seen such a painfully minimal return on that passion. Now, after new ownership infused the fanbase with even more hope, the leader could be forced to step aside briefly. Or worse, step down.
Jimmy Haslam is the CEO of Pilot Flying J, a company that was just raided by the FBI due to allegations of fraud stemming from employees manipulating smaller trucking companies by reducing the rebates they were owed after buying fuel. Haslam, who has been included in the Browns’ draft preparation meetings, issued a generic statement, saying that illegal employee conduct will not be tolerated.
The turmoil that now follows Haslam could quickly result in the Browns’ new ownership being temporarily dismantled, or at least altered significantly.
Earlier this morning ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi reported that during the investigation the league could ask Haslam to relinquish his control of the Browns.
The source believes the league may ask Haslam to step aside of his own volition and remove himself from operational control of the Browns while the investigation continues. It’s possible that requirement could result in Haslam staying away from the team facility.
If Haslam declined, the source said, the league could suspend Haslam until the investigation is completed.
As Grossi also notes, there’s precedent for a suspension. In 1999 former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was suspended for the season after failing to report an alleged extortion plot.
That case provides another precedent for Haslam’s suggested next move. DeBartolo kept ownership of the franchise in his family by ceding control to his sister, and some stability was maintained.
Haslam may now pursue something similar. That was echoed by ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson, who said it’s within the realm of possibility that Haslam won’t be the Browns owner in the near future. Soon we’ll find out if that means the Haslam name — and the many dollars attached to it — will also be removed entirely, though the league forcing a sale if Jimmy himself is found to be directly involved in the fraud would be historic, to say the least.
Stay safe out there, Cleveland.
UPDATE (1:01 p.m. ET): Welp, resume normal breathing, I guess…
The NFL does not plan to ask #Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to step down while the FBI/IRS investigation continues. Innocent until proven guilty
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 19, 2013