Haslam situation exposes another loophole in the personal-conduct policy


When the NFL beefed up the personal-conduct policy more than seven years ago, contemporaneously with the suspensions imposed on Pacman Jones and the late Chris Henry, a fairly clear loophole emerged.

If a player finds trouble, or vice-versa, the police officer who responds to the situation can keep the player out of trouble with the NFL by finding a way to not arrest or charge the player.  In some of the cities where the local NFL team serves as an overwhelming point of pride, it happens.  And so if an arrest doesn’t happen, the league never knows that anything happened, and there’s never any reason to review the situation under the personal-conduct policy.

The decision of Pilot Flying J to fork over $92 million (on top of more than $56 million paid in restitution to customers) to resolve a massive case of fraud has, as a practical matter, pulled the plug on any effort to prosecute Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.  Which means that, with no claim of criminal wrongdoing ever being made against Haslam, Haslam will face no scrutiny under the conduct policy.

“There have been no allegations of any personal conduct that is in violation of NFL policy,” the league in the aftermath of the announcement that Pilot Flying J would pay nearly nine figures to avoid criminal prosecution.

The loophole in this case comes not from a police officer’s decision to look the other way but from the wide range of discretion possessed by prosecutors.  Clearly the most powerful law-enforcement officer in every jurisdiction, the prosecutor decides who gets charged, who doesn’t get charged, and what they get charged with.  In this case, after spending months methodically harvesting guilty pleas and rock-climbing the organizational chart, the prosecutor ultimately had to decide whether to make a run at Haslam or to strike a deal that kicks a very large pile of cash into the federal coffers.

It’s not hard to justify the outcome.  Haslam would have spared no expense to defend himself, knowing that the mere creation of if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit-style reasonable doubt would have resulted in no conviction and no jail time.  Instead, the prosecutor has secured a massive payment from the company, along with a commitment that the company will cooperate fully with any and all efforts to prosecute specific individuals.

One of those individuals could be Haslam himself, in theory.  But with lawyer Aubrey Harwell representing both Haslam and Pilot Flying J, a decision to prosecute Haslam would land somewhere on the range of expectations far beyond shocking; if the feds intended to pursue Haslam, a deal wouldn’t have been struck with Pilot Flying J.

And if, as it appears, the $92 million payment from the family-owned company Haslam runs ultimately insulates him from prosecution, the prosecutorial discretion that resulted in the deal has helped Haslam avoid any scrutiny from the league office — and it has allowed the NFL to dance around the otherwise obvious impression that owners do indeed get treated differently than players.

Still, the no-arrest and no-prosecution loopholes to the personal-conduct policy are equally available to players and owners.  For one of those loopholes, however, having access to an extra $92 million helps.

45 responses to “Haslam situation exposes another loophole in the personal-conduct policy

  1. Except in the NFL, you don’t even need to be charged, let alone found guilty, for the league to swoop in and punish you if you’re a player. All it takes is the implication of wrong doing.

    Ben Roethlisberger was never arrested, charged, or found guilty and he was suspended by the league. I believe there are a few other examples of this as well. Hell, even and arrest and a charge carries the implication that you are “innocent until proven guilty.”

    So if the league can punish based on accusation, why doesn’t it punish in cases of Haslam and Irsay where, even if they avoided charges, it is clear, without a doubt, there was wrong doing?

    Answer: Rich, white billionaires.

    If I was a player, I would go for blood in the next CBA.

  2. When did it become ok to pay your way out of multiple felonies? Jp Morgan, citibank, etc….the inmates are running the asylum……

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t numerous Pilot Flying J employees and management execs turned state’s evidence? And isn’t it true that none of them indicated Haslam was involved nor indicated he knew of the corruption in the sales division of the company?

  4. If you’re going to play the “what if” game, then what if Haslam really knew nothing of the fraud? What if Haslam now realizes that his company committed this fraud and is now trying to do the right thing and pay back the millions that was stolen? The fact is, you can’t punish players or owners based on conjecture. Except for Ben Roethlisberger, of course. But I think Big Ben knew he was guilty so he just quietly took his lumps.

  5. This is the same guy that’s telling Manziel to tone it down.

    The only difference between Haslem and other criminals is he had the money to avoid prison. He’s still a criminal. Good luck ever gaining respect around he league.

  6. Then there is the fact that how one runs a business isn’t really “personal conduct”.

  7. Even worse than the Flying J mess, Haslam hired Joe Bummer and Mike Dumbturdi. If that move didn’t ‘tarnish the shield’, nothing will.

  8. Another very rich old white guy avoids prosecution, just like (e.g.) the Wall Street bankers who nearly caused an international financial collapse. Meanwhile, the prisons are teeming with poor lower- and middle-class people (especially black people, let’s be honest) many of whom are guilty of only some minor crime (like smoking marijuana). The Rule of Law is dead in America, as the law no longer applies to the rich and powerful.

  9. one standard for the rich folk and another standard for the common serf

    who would have thought this possible in America?

  10. Are you implying that wealthy, politically connected, white people are above the law? Who’s going to believe that ?

  11. walkinginthewasteland says:
    Jul 15, 2014 8:20 AM

    Then there is the fact that how one runs a business isn’t really “personal conduct”.

    “Corporations are people, my friend.”

    Which we all know is BS. If they were, B of A, Citibank, and others would all be in prison today.

  12. So Sterling, who said despicable but legal things, is forced to sell his team while Haslem, whose company committed criminal acts, did not nothing to violate the personal conduct policy. Seems legit. By the way, didn’t Godell recently say that the NBA did the right thing by forcing Sterling to sell?

  13. Funny how Goodell and the owners have zero issues punishing the players at the slightest inkling of wrongdoing through fines and suspensions, yet don’t hold themselves to the same standard. Their conduct is far more threatening to the integrity of the League and success of the league.

    The NFL has 20 years max left. They are going to screw themselves. This would be a perfect time for a new league to start up that is very player friendly.

  14. I’m not really sure why anyone is surprised that Roger Godell, and employee of the owners, is not pushing harder to punish his bosses. Are we really expecting a noble stance from the Ginger Hammer on this?

  15. .
    Tonight on the NFL Network : Cleveland and Minnesota meet in the “Racketeering Bowl”

  16. Rich owners, rich players. Neither one of them gets treated anything like us when it comes to the legal system.

  17. @laxer37

    The guy just bought his way out of federal prison time. He has the respect of every owner in the league. And if you think billionaire owners care about the respect of the players and fans you’re crazy. One is a huge pile of money to them and the other is merely a tool to acquire that money.

  18. The most frustrating part is, we were asleep so long we never realized we were having our rights ripped away by the modern aristocracy, and can now do very little about it.

    I applaud what some of the above comments say, but bringing skin color into it only helps muddle the issue. Jay Z got probation for stabbing a guy after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and I don’t think he’s white, but he has something in common with Haslam

  19. The $92 million was paid to the feds to avoid prosecution. They can call it a “fine”, but it’s just a made up and agreed to amount. Let’s call it what it really is – a bribe.

    Haslam has essentially done what other powerful yet corrupt corporations do. Buy off the Federal prosecutors with these “fines.”

    Yet if a player (or anyone for that matter) is pulled over, or fails a drug test, they would face additional serious consequences if they attempted to bribe the officer/sample collector.

  20. Just like any plea bargain that is generally available to anyone charged with a crime. The prosecutor has to weigh the odds of conviction and the cost of that prosecution. Many times that analysis results in a situation like the above one.

  21. Loophole?

    “And so if an arrest doesn’t happen, the league never knows that anything happened, and there’s never any reason to review the situation under the personal-conduct policy.”

    I’m NOT a fan of Big Ben, but Ben was NOT arrested yet he still found himself suspended via the personal-conduct policy.

    “The loophole in this case comes not from a police officer’s decision to look the other way but from the wide range of discretion possessed by prosecutors. Clearly the most powerful law-enforcement officer in every jurisdiction, the prosecutor decides who gets charged, who doesn’t get charged, and what they get charged with.”

    What was Big Ben charged with again?

  22. Let’s pretend for a moment that Mr.Goodell wants to be just and fair. With Haslem and Irsay paying his salary what exactly is he supposed to do?

  23. If Pilot/Flying J were a publicly traded company rather than a family owned and operated one, then the CEO would be liable for falsely certifying the company’s financial statements. That’s basic Sarbanes-Oxley and was designed to avoid the Enron type “I had no idea my subordinates were crooked” defenses by CEOs who prudently used cutouts below them in the corporate structure.

    There’s very little chance the CEO of Flying J was unaware of $150 million in fraud by his company. If the NFL doesn’t punish Haslam, it’s a matter of choice by the commissioner, not that Haslam is innocent. What would Haslam’s defense be if the commissioner called him in? “Sure I benefited to the tune of $150 million in fraud by my company but I didn’t personally participate in the widespread scheme by my employees”? That fails the laugh test.

  24. In some cases such as Donovan McNabb’s recent DUI the player may simply come across a tight lipped Police Department. In the case of McNabb an Indian Nation PD busted him and according to local reporter I emailed about it he said it didn’t matter who it was they just don’t blab about who they arrest. As he put it asking them anything was like asking for nuclear launch codes. And with an Indian Nation FOIA (federal and state) does not apply

  25. State and local officials in Indy did exactly what Mike is saying in regards to Irsay. He got away with a slap on the rich guys hand and of course the obvious decision to go into rehab helped. This guy knew he was a druggie early on in his silver spooned upbringing because his father was the same way. How many times has been caught and not arrested because of the financial impact his team brings to the State and city. Haslems buying his way out of his mess. How could he not know with the magnitude of scammed rebates. An owner would surely know what programs and processes, like rebates, are helping or hindering his bottom line. NFL double standards.

  26. Our highest court rules that Corporations are People, and can buy elections and thereby run countries. Yet Corporations can’t be sent to prison or forced to serve in the military. Is there any doubt about Corporations, not countries/tribes/people, ruling the world?

    What was that old movie….Rollerball?

  27. Our country is now an oligarchy. Good citizens are expected to serve the wealthy. government serves their ends. With good reason, they spend millions every election cycle convincing voters to place their puppets in office. And afterward, millions more for lobbyists to do their bidding.

    Praise Haslam, savior of the Browns. Now Clevelanders, raise your sin taxes so your team can have a nice place to play.

  28. “Pacman Jones and the late Chris Henry” are a poor comparison, These men committed infractions personally, over and over. A Pacman posse member never got Pacman suspended.

  29. I disagree.

    The fine is similar to a plea deal, and we will soon see Ray Rice, who also took a plea to avoid jail time, be suspended under the Personal Conduct penalty.

    And the NFL doesn’t even need a player to be charged to be disciplined. Ben Roethlisberger is a perfect example of that.

  30. Where’s all the evidence against Jimmy? I’m not saying he was innocent; Where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. They’ve investigated this for over a year now and haven’t found the smoking gun that proved Jimmy was guilty. If the glove doesn’t fit, you must aquit.

  31. ” In some of the cities where the local NFL team serves as an overwhelming point of pride, it happens.”

    This same team gets away with selling bogus stock and pre planned touchdown celebrations. But then again if this were an even playing field the team in question wouldn’t stand a chance.

  32. I echo those who brought up the Roethlisberger persecution: he was NEVER EVEN CHARGED with doing anything wrong. Goodell now shows himself to be a hypocrite yet again.

    If the league won’t do anything about Haslam, then Goodell owes Roethlisberger a public apology.

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