CLEVELAND — There are a lot of elephants wandering around 76 Lou Groza Blvd. these days.
They’re in the Cleveland Browns parking lot, the media room, the draft room, the locker room, the training room, the players lounge … they’re just about everywhere.
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In the owner’s office, there are actually a few of these animals with trunks.
Yes, they’re the elephants in every room.
Because while the team tries to go about its business this week during the draft, the owner is embroiled in a federal investigation. This issue likely won’t be discussed this week, but it’s there in everything the Browns do.
If a team thought it was tough to play with the sale of a team hovering, imagine what it will be like playing with the owner’s future in doubt.
A year ago, the season was blown up when the sale was announced the first day of training camp. This season, it may have gone to smithereens earlier. Just like a year ago, the coaches will work like crazy to win, but it’s going to be tough with this cloud following them.
Jimmy Haslam on Monday acted like a man who knows his company is teetering, with the FBI and IRS checking into alleged fraud in a rebate program that allegedly ripped off its customers.
Friday Haslam insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong. Monday, he clearly understood (at a minimum) that folks at his company had. He was embarrassed and said he had the worst weekend of his life reading the affidavit. He put some folks on administrative leave (which means they’re still paid), ordered an internal audit and hired an independent investigator to find out what happened.
Perhaps Haslam did not know of the activity that took place on his watch. But he is the man who said when he took over the Browns that he would be involved and active with the team the same way he is with his truck-stop company. A man who portrayed himself as the white knight coming in to save the franchise.
The city embraced him, welcomed him. Even though nobody really knew him aside from the brief news conferences and time spent sitting in the Dawg Pound or watching his behind-the-scenes TV show.
He’s an effervescent man. Well-spoken. Bright. All that stuff. But now the feds claim in an affidavit that he knew about a plan to defraud customers out of money, a plan that his employees talked about in casual, profane and dismissive ways. As if fraud is a laughing matter.
Try laughing while looking down the barrel of a federal investigation.
At least Haslam acknowledged that some of his employees acted and talked in abhorrent ways.
Whether Haslam is charged remains to be seen. At present, there are no indictments, no charges. It could well be he’s not, but people familiar with federal investigations would be surprised if he’s not.
As one person who is intimately familiar with these investigations said: “What does his lawyer say? Yeah, he was involved and knew about it, but can you put somebody else in jail?”
If that happens, the NFL’s next step will be interesting.
Haslam was unanimously approved as Browns owner by the other 31 owners in October. Now the league learns on the day the company is raided that their new partner is under investigation for some serious breaches of the law, according to USA Today, which described the league as blindsided.
The fact that the investigation stayed so secret in this day and age is a testament to the feds. They are the one investigative agency that keeps a tight lid on things.
The league said it has no immediate plans to ask Haslam to step down.
But if he’s indicted … ask yourself: How can the league allow an owner indicted of such a serious crime to remain when it disciplines players so severely? League rules apply to everyone, though it’s probably safe to say the league doesn’t have a specific “fraud by-law.”
Where this investigation goes or how long it lasts is anyone’s guess. There may be difficult times ahead. No matter what happens, there has been damage to Haslam’s reputation and stature, and his company. As he admitted, his company now has the worst reputation in the trucking business.
Then consider this scenario for the Browns, with the proviso that it’s merely a possibility.
The league eventually decides that it cannot have Haslam as an owner, so he’s asked to sell. He does, bringing in a new owner. New owner of course wants his own people, which means another housecleaning and, yes, another re-start in Berea.
Hoo hoo! (Sarcasm font.)
It should be no surprise there are elephants in Berea. It’s the home of the Cleveland Browns, where the circus always seems to be in town.