Browns doing business as usual amid federal probe
BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The legal entanglement of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is not tying up his NFL franchise, the team’s top executive says.
On the eve of training camp, CEO Joe Banner said the federal investigation into fraud at Haslam’s Pilot Flying J truck-stop business has not hindered the club’s daily operations or impacted the owner’s vision for turning the Browns into perennial winners.
And as for the possibility Haslam will sell his team, Banner does not envision that happening.
“I don’t see that scenario, but you know,” Banner said before trailing off.
In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, Banner spoke openly about Haslam’s situation, which hangs over a team that has had just two winning seasons since its rebirth in 1999. Banner tried to ease the concerns of some nervous Cleveland fans, who fear the ongoing federal probe will derail the team’s plans and lead to further turmoil.
Haslam, who bought the Browns last year from Randy Lerner, recently reached a settlement with some Pilot Flying J customers who were cheated out of rebate money. Haslam has professed his innocence since FBI and IRS agents raided the company’s Knoxville, Tenn., headquarters on April 15.
While Banner appreciates there are those who worry about the team’s future, he said nothing has interrupted the plan Haslam launched last August.
“It really hasn’t affected us at all,” he said. “We have a team we put together here of really, really good people, whether we’re talking the coaching staff, the business side, even our foundation. We’re really excited about the team we put together.
“Jimmy really had a vision. He spoke about what his priorities were around creating a phenomenal fan experience and being focused on winning fans again. He hired me. We put together a team on a day-to-day basis to accomplish that. We’re free and clear to do all that. Nothing has happened to impact our ability to do that or frankly given us any reason not to be successful.”
Banner said Haslam has remained involved in every aspect of the Browns since the investigation began and that he’s determined to see every aspect of his plan through.
“Jimmy’s here and incredibly supportive and a huge asset to us,” said Banner, who spent 14 seasons in Philadelphia’s front office before coming to Cleveland. “He’s made it clear and I’ve tried to make it clear without any ambiguity at all that he’s not going to sell the team.”
Haslam is expected to be on the field Thursday when coach Rob Chudzinski holds his first practice.
The league has reserved any comment on Haslam’s off-field issues until the situation is resolved. Still, Banner believes commissioner Roger Goodell is satisfied the Browns are running smoothly.
“I think the league feels really good about the way things are going, but they have a wait-and-see attitude as well,” Banner said. “I think they feel very good about Jimmy, he’s been very open and transparent with them. I think they feel confident in the way they see him leading and the team we’ve put together to operate things.”
Banner acknowledged the investigation was “a surprise” but that it didn’t sway his opinion about Haslam or give him any second thoughts about joining Cleveland. Banner remains confident and supportive of Haslam.
“He’s been extremely open with me and felt it was appropriate I knew what was going on and reinforce the very same messages he said publicly,” Banner said. “We certainly discussed it, but I know him. I have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t say I had to be reassured.
“He’s either in or he’s not — and he’s in.”
Based on his years in the league and knowing how it functions, Banner has always felt Haslam’s arrival would change the outside perception of the Browns. Despite the legal case, Banner doesn’t think much differently.
“Well, I think it’s not as pure as it was, but I don’t think it’s spoiled,” he said.
On other Browns-related issues, Banner said:
— Wide receiver Josh Gordon has some work to do to earn back the team’s trust after being suspended two games for violating the league’s drug policy. “He understands he’s going to be held accountable and he gets the rope that’s left isn’t long,” Banner said. “In working with the coaches they need to see that commitment, that work ethic. Obviously, off the field he needs to make good choices.”
— The Browns have sold more season tickets this offseason that at any time since 1999, and their renewal rate from last season was 94 percent.
— Plans for major renovations at FirstEnergy Stadium will be announced in the near future, but the team has promised a cleaner facility this season and fans will have improved cell phone service.
— Discussions have taken place about using artificial turf at the stadium, but the preference is to maintain a natural surface. “Maybe we’ve got to replace it a little more frequently during the season but our strong inclination is to play football frankly outdoors and on a grass field,” he said. “That could change but we have a strong inclination to do it that way.”