David Climer: Be glad Jimmy Haslam isn't piloting Titans

12:31 PM, Jul 12, 2013   |    comments
Cleveland Browns new owner Jimmy Haslam sits in the 'Dog Pound' in the first half of their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns Stadium on August 24, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
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By David Climer | The Tennessean

With their combined 29-35 record and no playoff appearances in the last four seasons, many of us are displeased with the Titans' current direction.

And it goes straight to the top -- right into the lap of the owner, Bud Adams.

But it could be worse. The Titans could be owned by Jimmy Haslam.

We can quibble about Bud's hire/fire decisions, his occasional meddling in the draft and that memorable double-bird salute in 2009, but his various business ventures have not compromised his control of this NFL franchise since it landed on Tennessee turf in 1997.

You can't say the same for Haslam and the Browns. As CEO of Pilot Flying J, Haslam's worthiness as an NFL owner has been called into question since the FBI raided the company headquarters in Knoxville on April 15.

There's nothing like an ongoing FBI investigation involving the business of a team owner's to make the NFL hierarchy nervous.

It's no secret that the Haslam family once had its eyes on the Titans franchise. It was only after Bud reiterated that he would keep the team in his family and had made arrangements to cover estate taxes that Haslam looked elsewhere.

His first move was to acquire a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers. With that, he bought a junior membership in the Billionaire Boys Club of NFL owners. When Randy Lerner put the Browns up for sale, Haslam ponied up. Now he's a full-fledged member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

Earlier this week, Haslam told ESPN.com he is "absolutely not" selling the Browns. For now, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the other 31 franchise owners are backing him. That's standard operating procedure. They look out for their own.

Still, there's no doubt the investigation at Pilot Flying J has many around the league concerned. The thought of a company run by an NFL owner being under investigation by the FBI doesn't sit well in a league where image and perception mean so much.

When he assumed ownership of the Browns, Haslam said his hands-on management of Pilot Flying J was an example of the benefits of strong leadership. Given the state of the investigation and recent stories about the company's ballooning debt, Haslam's business sense no longer seems like such an asset for the Browns.

Depending on what eventually does or doesn't turn up in the FBI investigation, Goodell could find himself with quite a quandary. He has come down hard on players who misbehave off the field, basing fines and suspensions on failing to live up to the standards expected of those in the NFL.

But what if it's an owner who has failed to conduct his non-football business up to the standards expected of those in the NFL? Does he get a pass? And if so, why?

Goodell has only himself and his associates to blame for this potentially explosive situation. When Haslam initiated negotiations to buy the Browns, the league went through its customary vetting process but failed to note an FBI investigation that began in May 2011.

Nobody at NFL headquarters knew about it until the feds raided the offices of Pilot Flying J. For a league that prides itself on being prepared for just about everything, that was a major gaffe.

You've got to feel for Browns fans. For the first time since Art Modell packed up his team and moved it to Baltimore, things were looking up in Cleveland. Haslam seemed to be everything they wanted in an owner.

He had deep pockets and a vision for success. He spent $5 million to remodel the team's facilities. He announced a $100 million investment to upgrade the stadium.

Then the FBI knocked on the door.

David Climer's columns appear on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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