The NFL thought it was getting an upgrade when it approved the sale of the Cleveland Browns. So how did things go wrong so fast?
The Pilot Flying J scandal is just one of numerous blemishes on the records of franchise owners who increasingly place their own interests above the public's. Above, Jim Haslam (centre) views practice in 2012 with Mike Holmgren (right), soon to be out the door. (via Cleveland.com)
There were rumblings that the Cleveland Browns would be sold as early as a year ago, but no one had any credible details. It was contained in the field of radio callers who spouted off about the latest rumours about events that they couldn't prove but that were as sure as dawn being planned behind closed doors. Finally in July 2012 then team President Mike Holmgren confirmed that owner Randy Lerner had placed the team on the selling block. The buyer: a Tennessee native named Jim Haslam.
The local press judged this decision through two angles:
- The decision was one more careless decision of the Lerner family. Randy Lerner and his late father Al had revived the franchise after the original Browns owner Art Modell ditched town in 1995 for Baltimore. But neither the father or son had endeared fans, because their inept personnel decisions and the perceived lack of interest in the Browns (despite the lucrative profits they gross) had produced one of the most laughable teams in all of pro sports. Whereas Al Lerner had been treated as one of the people who had aided Modell's move to Baltimore, his son hardly ever participated in team business nor league meetings, to the point that in 2009 fans demanded and received the sports equivalent of the Magna Carta; Lerner devolved all real decision making power to a team president. That was the initial reason for Holmgren's hire. The decision to sell the team during the course of the 2012 season automatically doomed the prospects for that year, and most of the team's officials and coaches knew they were working to keep their jobs.
- At the same time optimism broke out concerning the new owner. Haslam was considered a great fit for the NFL, possessing the combination of money and connections, the common touch, and football enthusiasm. He had already been a minority owner of the rival Steelers, and his family had donated generously to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
To all appearances Haslam was a charming alternative, as he could be seen in the early season viewing the
practices in person in a polo and shorts. As he answered media questions he enthusiastically stated his ambitions of restoring the franchise to its long-departed title winning ways.
At the time the warning signs were present but it was unclear what they indicated. One acquaintance spoke about how his loyalties had been to the Dallas Cowboys, then the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers upon buying a stake, and now the Browns. The friend was trying to describe Haslam's passion for football, but one could easily see it as a turnoff for long-suffering Browns fans who despise the Steelers (and also as I can also tell you the Cowboys). When making statements as well as answering questions, Haslam used the word "candidly" with bewildering frequency. This bizarre habit actually cast doubt in my mind on his credibility.
As most media pundits had predicted the team's 2012 season was a repetition of the failing ways the Browns had accustomed the public to, going 5-11. Prior to the season's end Holmgren was gradually phased out and in mid-November was relieved of all duties. This was a confirmation that the Lerner staff was on its way out, and that a house cleaning was in the offing. Following the season-ending 24-10 loss to Pittsburgh Haslam and new CEO Joe Banner canned coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert. The Holmgren and Heckert tandem had a 14-34 record while steering the brown and orange ship, and their choice of Pat Shurmur as a replacement following their first wasted year with coach Eric Mangini was considered a fatal mistake. It also didn't help that Holmgren had a testy relationship with the local media, and had completely alienated the team's all-time icon Jim Brown.
Jimmy wakes the dragon
It was not long before the purchase of the franchise aroused the passions of its loyal fan base. One of the obstacles that Haslam was bound to face is the cynical and distrustful fan base, one that laps up the venomous (and yet accurate) statements of commentary like this from comedian Mike Polk. In the absence of team accomplishments, local fans turn against their athletes in the blink of an eye; just ask former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis (now a backup RB for Kansas City) or Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller who must be gazing nostalgically at those Duke campus events. When it comes to front office and staff the barometer also drops pretty fast, as evidenced by the bewildering reshuffling during the early Holmgren days when GM Greg Kokinis was axed in order to sate the blood lust of an angry crowd that was on the verge of boycotting games and embarrassing the NFL. The Kokinis firing may have prolonged Eric Mangini's tenure by a year, because the Browns immediately started winning games. So who would be surprised that they would turn on an owner only months after his purchase of the team.
Mike Lombardi. A risky hire for an owner who hasn't shied away from the flames yet.
Haslam's honeymoon with Cleveland went sour following that December 31 series of ax blows that jettisoned the Holmgren crew. The Browns were right on time to compete for the best candidates, as some premium people like Bruce Arians and Ken Whisenhunt were seeking a new home. Both of them had helped turn talented quarterbacks into successful ones; Whisenhunt had helped revive Kurt Warner's career, while Arians had been instrumental in guiding Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh to his second Super Bowl and Andrew Luck through his rookie season. The media fed the frenzy by speculating about perennial rumor magnets Bill Cowher and John Gruden. But who was the Browns' first choice for the job? Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly, a guy who waffled between staying at his scandal ridden school or ditching it for the NFL. At one point Kelly seemed set on snubbing the Browns and his second suitor the Philadelphia Eagles by declaring that he would stay in Oregon, but within days he had signed on in Philly. The fact that it was new CEO Joe Banner's old team created the impression among news outlets that Haslam and Banner had been beaten in a chess game with the Eagles. The wild duck chase (I had to put that in) may have spoiled the Browns' chances of landing any of the other premium candidates. Arians and Whisenhunt were both off the market by the time Haslam had named Rob Chudzinski as his first head coaching hire.
The choice of the Carolina offensive coordinator received lukewarm reaction from fans, but it was like a ticker tape parade compared to the new GM the Browns chose. Throwing caution to the wind, Banner and Haslam opted for a person who was bound to raise the ire of a public with long memories: NFL Network sportscaster Mike Lombardi. For a regime that had claimed it was changing the face of Cleveland football, hiring someone who had been the pre-'96 Browns' pro personnel director was a major miscue. Lombardi was roundly hated for being one of Bill Belichick's lieutenants before it was fashionable to be associated with Belichick.
But if there was ever an ideal time to make a string of controversial moves, Haslam picked the right one. The winter off season is too far away from any important dates, and the Lombardi hiring would never affect ticket sales nor fan anticipation of better times. Neither did Haslam's January 15 agreement with local power utility FirstEnergy to award stadium naming rights to them. FirstEnergy had attracted criticism this past November for laying off employees in the area. But the move rolled off the backs of a Browns community more focused on football issues than the business side of the NFL.
Convoy of Shame
The FBI raid on Pilot Flying J's HQ in Tennessee occurred during the run-up to the NFL draft. Overnight, Haslam's image as the more accessible Browns owner was instantly dashed. Why the sudden change?
The scandal is easy enough to understand. The Haslam family corporation, one of the largest privately owned enterprises in the US, grew from 2001 by ingeniously co-opting several of its rivals. Originally Pilot Travel Centers (still the official name of the company), it purchased the Flying J travel centers in 2009 in a merger agreement with the rival, which at the time was going through bankruptcy.
For the Haslams, the travel centre business had no drawbacks. Overland diesel truck transport is a vital component of American commerce. In the past, conditions for the drivers had been especially trying given the spartan conditions of road travel. The Pilot centres offered several advantages for this burgeoning customer base: Clean creature comforts such as showers and restaurant franchises attracted the drivers. In order to attract the trucking companies, the Haslams were able to offer deals and discounts that made fueling agreements impossible to pass up, especially in times of fluctuating diesel costs. And within those exclusive fueling agreements Pilot offered rebates that sweetened the deal for the trucking companies.
So far all was above the belt, but then the company's sales department started flying too close the sun, or rather the fuel tank. Senior sales staff began to encourage their salesmen to deceive trucking companies into signing agreements, and then would deliberately reduce the rebate payments, or even not deliver them at all. This represented a clear-cut breach of contract. These practices were later documented by conversations recorded by the FBI as well as documents recovered throughout its investigation. Perhaps most damning of all was the tactic held by the Pilot Flying J officials of targeting for recruitment trucking fleet owners deemed not sophisticated enough to notice the rebate withholdings. This condescending attitude shattered the perception of the Haslams having enough integrity so that this practice could be viewed as a mistake or shifted to their underlings. Jim Haslam's response was, "Candidly, I did nothing wrong."
But on April 25 the company did seem acknowledge that it was no longer welcome in trucking circles by withdrawing sponsorship of a national trucking social media conference in Kansas City. The damage done in just a month of bad publicity may have laid to waste a legacy stretching back to 1958 when James Haslam II, father of the current CEO and Browns owner. established Pilot Oil Corporation. Jimmy III's gestures at rapprochement with the fleet owners have so far failed to quench the flames of retribution; on April 20 Atlantic Coast Carriers, a Georgia based customer harmed by the rebate policy, publicly revealed Pilot Flying J's attempts to pay them off in exchange from dropping their suit.
It is actually a shame to see this saga unfold, as I have personally visited a Flying J location in Ohio and found the service there far above expectations of a travel stop. But Browns fans must now take off their rose coloured lenses and look at their owner clearly. People buy NFL franchises for two reasons: Profit and prestige. The NFL, even in a dire economy, presents the greatest potential return on investment of any sports venture today, because it has not had a protracted labour dispute since 1987, and its revenues from TV and commercial sponsorship seem to have no upper limit. Owners often enjoy a social status that is hard to equal, and seem to acquire influence that even politicians can't touch. Haslam's Cleveland neighbour Dan Gilbert successfully lobbied for passage of a voter-approved issue in 2009 that brought legalized gaming to northeast Ohio. The main beneficiary, Rock Ohio Caesars, a partnership between Gilbert and Caesar Entertainment Group that operates the Horseshoe Casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
It cannot be understated that Haslam's move into Cleveland, whereas until now he had been more identified with interests in his native Tennessee and with the Pittsburgh Steelers, may have been an attempt to flex his company's muscle as the largest company of its type in North America. In Westlake, OH, located a few towns west of Cleveland but still within Cuyahoga County, is the headquarters of TravelCenters America (TA), the top remaining rival of Pilot Flying J. But the intersection of financial barons and sports was always present and will never be broken. What should be broken is the apathetic attitude of politicians and fans who bend over backwards to interests like these. Rejection of this type of business practice means looking out for the wellbeing of small businessmen and customers. The gullibility and desperation of fans allows untrustworthy people to weasel their way into the highest circles of our society. If we open the gates to such selfish behaviour so easily, what is the guarantee that these franchise owners actually deliver even on their wholly symbolic promise of sports titles?