BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The NFL is standing by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
With Haslam embroiled in a legal scandal involving his family-owned truck-stop business, Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his confidence in Cleveland’s owner and said the league has no plans to intervene or discipline him at this point.
Goodell visited Cleveland’s training camp on Thursday to launch a program between the league and Pop Warner with USA Football’s Heads Up Football Program. Following a clinic with young players, Goodell said he’s satisfied with Haslam’s handling of the federal investigation at Pilot Flying J, and said the league is proud to be associated with its newest owner.
“Jimmy Haslam is a man of great integrity,” Goodell said. “We’re proud to have him as an owner in the NFL and think he’s going to be a great owner for the Cleveland Browns and their fans. He’s as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot J and he’s working hard to fix it and correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends.”
Goodell added that the league has no plans to intervene at this time.
“I don’t think it’s a matter for us at this moment,” Goodell said.
Haslam has been in the crosshairs of controversy since April 15, when the FBI and IRS raided Pilot Flying J’s headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., seizing documents and as part of a probe into wide-spread fraud at the company. Haslam has maintained he did not know about a program within his sales staff to cheat customers out of rebate and discount money. Seven employees have pleaded guilty to defrauding customers.
Goodell said Haslam assured him he knew nothing of the rebate scam.
“He’s been very clear that he’s had no knowledge of that and he’s been clear publicly and clear with you all,” Goodell said. “He doesn’t need any pushing. This company means a lot to him and he’s obviously not happy about what has happened and he’s determined to fix it. Jimmy is more disappointed than anybody.”
Pressed about what the league might do if Haslam were indicted, Goodell refused to presume anything.
“We’re not going to play the hypothetical game,” Goodell said. “Right now he’s addressing the issues. We’re confident he’s going to deal with it properly. You’re dealing with a bunch of hypotheticals. We’re not going there.”
Goodell said the league was thorough in its vetting of Haslam, who was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers before buying the Browns.
“This was a surprise to him and to his senior-level management,” Goodell said. “From that standpoint, I don’t think he was aware of it and I don’t know any way we could have been aware of it. It was not disclosed to us.”
Goodell has a well-earned reputation as being a tough disciplinarian with players. He promised to be equally firm with any owner who breaks the law.
“We actually hold ownership to a higher standard and management,” he said. “I think we’ve proven that in what we’ve done. It’s not just accused. As you know, in our policy, oftentimes we let the criminal process unfold because you need to do that to find out the real facts. Sometimes we don’t have all the facts and we need to do that. What we look at is multiple offenders. As you know, that’s a real focus for us.”
Haslam and Goodell were not seen together on the field as the Browns concluded their first week of camp. Goodell spent time visiting with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who has returned as an adviser with the team.
Earlier in the day, Goodell and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer conducted a football safety clinic for 500 moms of youth players in Columbus.
Although he was already in the league, Haslam underwent the same scrutiny as any owner, Goodell insisted.
“We go through the same process on any circumstance,” Goodell said. “When you’re going through a controlling ownership position, that’s a big step up so we don’t just pass that off. We do the same vetting process. Obviously he knows people in the league after being an owner, so there were certain aspects of that which were easier. But we didn’t short-circuit anything.”
Goodell is satisfied the investigation has not been a distraction to the Browns, who are undergoing another makeover with a new front office and coaching staff, However, Goodell did concede it’s troubling one of the NFL’s owners is part of federal probe.
“You never want to see this kind of thing happen, particularly to a partner in the league,” Goodell said. “Obviously his partners care a great deal about him and as a partner they want to see him getting off to a good start. This is not what anybody intended, not anybody anticipated. But he’s a man that I think everyone truly respects in the NFL.”
Goodell said the Browns are in good hands with Haslam, whom he believes can restore the Browns to their former glory.
“Jimmy Haslam came into this with a mindset that he was going to do everything possible to get this franchise turned around in a positive direction and a team that this community will be proud of not just in any single year but consistently and to create a winner,” Goodell said. “And he’s brought in great talent. He’s brought in great people. He set the organization obviously in a different direction. I think that’s all positive and good for the fans here and ultimately good for the NFL.”
NOTES: Browns coach Rob Chudzinski opened his post-practice news conference by commenting on the Indians’ eight-game winning streak. “Love it,” he said. … Browns WR Josh Gordon did some team drills after missing two days with tendinitis in his knee. … Safety T.J. Ward sat out practice with a tight hamstring. … WR David Nelson tweaked his knee while running a pass route and was kept out. He tore his ACL last season and had knee surgery in Buffalo. … Browns DT Brian Sanford and rookie G Garrett Gilkey got into a fight during a one-on-one drill. … Chudzinski said OLB Quentin Groves is “having a great camp.” Groves signed with Cleveland as a free agent this winter from Arizona.