July 24, 2016

Partly cloudy

Browns: Haslam receives support from Goodell

BEREA — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is standing behind Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Goodell was on Cleveland’s practice fields Thursday for a youth clinic to promote the fundamentals of tackling. But his seven-minute news conference was dominated by questions about Haslam and the legal troubles of his family company, Pilot Flying J.

Goodell was strong in his praise of Haslam — the NFL’s newest owner — and wouldn’t entertain any questions about what would happen if Haslam is indicted or convicted in connection with the ongoing FBI investigation into a rebate fraud scheme at Pilot Flying J.

“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 here.”

As the Browns prepare for the season, a cloud of uncertainly hovers above the team.

Haslam maintains his innocence, but he hasn’t been cleared. And Browns fans are worried the NFL could step in if Haslam is indicted.

“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.

“Right now this is an issue where he’s had some people in his organization that have obviously not conducted themselves in a way that’s consistent with what he wants. He’s fixing it and he’s gotta do that. Those things happen in big organizations.”

Haslam has said Goodell was one of his first calls after the FBI raid on Pilot Flying J headquarters in April, and Goodell said Haslam has kept him informed of any updates. They met Thursday inside team headquarters, but weren’t together outside as Haslam watched practice in a blue button-down Pilot Flying J shirt.

Goodell said the NFL has no plans to intervene in the operation of the Browns.

“Jimmy is more disappointed than anybody but I don’t think it’s a matter for us at this moment,” he 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.”

Haslam is CEO of Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest travel center operator. Seven employees have pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme that cheated trucking companies of their proper fuel rebates. Haslam has maintained that he wasn’t aware of the fraud system, but the company has agreed to reimburse trucking companies that were cheated.

Goodell said he asked Haslam if he knew about the fraud scheme.

“Yes, absolutely (I asked),” Goodell said. “And 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 the league hasn’t been in contact with the FBI. He denied the legal troubles are a distraction to the Browns but admitted they are troubling to the league.

“You never want to see this kind of thing happen, particularly to a partner in the league,” he said. “So 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.”

Haslam said last week he was “very optimistic” about the outcome of the FBI investigation.

“I have every reason to believe him,” Goodell said. “We have not been given anything that would be inconsistent with that.”

Haslam went through a vetting process by the NFL before he became minority owner of the Steelers in 2008. His $1 billion purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner was approved by owners in October.

The FBI raid happened just six months later, so Goodell was asked if the vetting process wasn’t as thorough because Haslam had already been approved as minority owner of the Steelers.

“No, 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.”

He insisted the vetting process wasn’t flawed, despite Pilot Flying J being under FBI investigation at the time.

“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.”

One of the focuses of Goodell’s time as commissioner has been holding players more accountable for their off-field actions. He’s been quick with punishment, often angering the players.

“We actually hold ownership to a higher standard,” he said. “And I think we’ve proven that in what we’ve done.

“In our policy, oftentimes we let the criminal process unfold because you need to do that to find out the real facts.”

Goodell wants to see the Browns reverse their fortunes on the field, and believes Haslam is the right man for the job.

“Well, listen, the Cleveland Browns are an important part of the NFL,” he said. “I think Jimmy Haslam came into this with a mind-set 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.

“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.”

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.