By Jim Wyatt | The Tennessean
Deep pockets, a squeaky-clean past and a healthy vision of the future - those are just a few of the things needed to get approval for NFL ownership.
History has proven things don't always work out for those at the top, however.
Facing bankruptcy, New England Patriots owner Victor Kiam sold his share in the team in 1992. Less than a decade earlier, owner Leonard Tose was forced to sell the Philadelphia Eagles because of a gambling debt.
Each case was an embarrassment for the league, and some believe helped set in motion a stricter NFL vetting process like the one Jimmy Haslam went through before being approved as owner of the Cleveland Browns in October of 2012.
"The owners have never been a spotless society. If you had the money and didn't have any big black marks against you, you could get in,'' said NFL historian Edwin Pope, 85, a sportswriter with the Miami Herald since 1956 who has covered every Super Bowl. "When those things happened, I'm sure that took the league by surprise. And I think they figured, "Well, we're going to have to do a better job of looking into things.
"I think there's more scrutiny now. They're more careful about who they let in."
One of their own has come under heavy scrutiny, however.
This week, the FBI raided the Knoxville headquarters of Pilot Flying J, the multibillion dollar company owned by the Haslam family. After the raid, Jimmy Haslam, CEO of the company and owner of the Browns, said he didn't believe the company had done anything wrong and said "the last thing I want to do" is put a blemish on the Browns.
On Thursday, the affidavits used to obtain the search warrants for the headquarters were unveiled, and showed that the FBI had obtained recorded conversations with several Pilot employees that outlined a scheme of defrauding trucking customers of rebates on their diesel purchases. The alleged fraud could total in the millions of dollars and, according to the FBI investigation, may have taken place over several years. Pilot Flying J is the largest seller of diesel fuel in the country.
Was Jimmy Haslam aware of the practice? An informant for the FBI told federal authorities that Haslam and the company president were in sales meetings where it was discussed. Furthermore, the affidavit indicates the FBI's own investigation shows that Haslam received reports that would have alerted him to what was going on. Information about the scheme might be found on Haslam's own computer, the FBI believed.
On Thursday, after the affidavits were unsealed, Haslam said in a statement "that any willful wrongdoing by any employee of this company at any time is intolerable" and that the company would continue to cooperate with federal authorities."
"I value the relationships we have with our customers, our vendors and our team members across this country and regret that they have to go through this with us. But I trust and believe their faith in this company and its principles has never been misplaced."
The NFL, meanwhile, is watching.
Haslam purchased the Browns for $1.05 billion last October. Haslam had previously been a minority owner of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers since December 2008.
Prior to Haslam's approval, the NFL thoroughly investigated Haslam's past. Since taking over the team, he's been praised in Cleveland for his enthusiastic, hands-on approach. He's also been well-received by players, and the team's fan base.
Greg Aiello, Senior Vice President of Communications for the NFL, declined comment earlier this week after the raid when reached by The Tennessean.
According to sources familiar with the process, the NFL vetting process is regularly thorough, and time consuming. The league carefully, and with independent, external advisors, examines the financial strength of any potential owner before approval. If the source of financial strength is a family business, the NFL looks at the company finances. Extensive background checks are done similar to those conducted by many companies on executives prior to hiring.
The Finance Committee reviews the prospective owner, makes a report to the teams, and the teams vote. It requires approval by 3/4 of the teams for approval (24 of 32). Owners voted 32-0 to approve Haslam purchase of the team from Randy Lerner on October 16. The next day, Haslam took out a full page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer acknowledging the team's fans, and expressing his desire to improve the franchise.
Jeff Diamond, former Vice President/General Manager of the Vikings and former president of the Titans, knows Haslam and said earlier this week before the affidavits were unsealed that "it is premature to say anything about what is going on" with the investigation.
"I would expect this thing would all come out just fine,'' he said.
Diamond noted the NFL hires private investigators to look at prospective owners, and many of the league's chief security officials are former FBI agents, secret service agents and former police chiefs. Following the death of legendary Redskins owner Jack Kente Cook in 1997, prospective buyer Howard Milstein ended up withdrawing an $800 million bid to buy the team amidst scrutiny from the NFL. Current owner Daniel Snyder was ultimately approved by the league, and other NFL owners.
"First off, an owner is not going to waste time negotiating unless they first check out (a prospective buyer), and then the league checks them out. So it is really a double-process. The seller is going to check them and then the league is going to check them,'' Diamond said.
"... The NFL security really leads the way on the vetting. NFL security is very much involved and they have contacts everywhere. They do a real thorough investigation of ownership."
Haslam, who grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, approached Titans owner Bud Adams on numerous occasions about purchasing the Titans, but Adams made it clear he was never interested in selling the team. In Pittsburgh, Haslam developed a solid reputation as a minority owner. Steelers owner Art Rooney II regularly praised his involvement with the team.
After purchasing the Browns in October, Haslam sold his remaining stake in the Steelers.
"He'll be a great owner,'' Rooney said last fall. "His enthusiasm, his energy -- Cleveland fans are in for a treat."
Patriots owner Bob Kraft agreed with Rooney's assessment.
"He reminded me a little of myself coming in because he's so passionate and enthusiastic,'' Kraft told the Plain Dealer. "I know how badly he wants that team to win, and that will become his principal focus. He really wants to turn the Browns into a big-time winner. If I were a Cleveland fan, I'd be pretty excited."
Reach Jim Wyatt at 259-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org