The Browns are sold even if the ink isn’t dry. This much we know. What we don’t know is how it all came to pass. Let’s go through the timeline a bit.
January, Randy Lerner goes on Mike Trivisonno’s radio show to raise his profile. It seemed like Lerner was finally starting to get the need to have his voice heard.
February, Vince Grzegorek does a great piece for Scene on Lerner that was cultivated over multiple meetings with Lerner in Berea over the previous months. One of many revelations in that piece was that Lerner was setting up shop in Cleveland with his son going to school at St. Ignatius.
Instead of spending a couple days a week in Cleveland and the rest in New York, where his other three children live with his ex-wife Lara, the script would be flipped. He would still fly to England on business for his other sporting property — Aston Villa, the soccer team he bought in 2006 — but the majority of his time would be spent on the shores of Lake Erie.
Additionally from Vince’s interview we learn that Lerner considers his team ownership more of a stewardship before saying of the Browns, “I think it should belong to the city.”
June, Howard Eskin reports out of Philly that the Cleveland Browns could be for sale along with the Rams and Bills. We can now pretty well speculate that Eskin was getting his info out of Joe Banner or people close to him.
Just as quickly as the Eskin reports came out, the denial came flying out of Berea via Neal Gulkis.
And then a couple months later, the Browns are sold to Jimmy Haslam III for what is reported to be over a billion dollars total when all is said and done.
So what really happened?
Did Randy Lerner know all along that he wanted to sell the team this summer? Was his final media campaign including interviews with Mike Trivisonno and Vince Grzegorek part of a last campaign so he could leave his office in Berea with some semblance of a decent reputation among Browns fans?
Did Lerner have some epiphany between February and June that now was the time to sell the team? Did his flirtation with relegation in British soccer scare him into focusing his efforts on just one thing?
Or how about my mild conspiracy theory that there were external pressures from the NFL telling Randy that it was time to sell the team? I don’t have any inside knowledge or sources, but my speculation takes me to a place that doesn’t feel very distant from a possible truth. It isn’t like a way out conspiracy theory. Follow me down this rabbit hole for a minute.
Jimmy Haslam III was obviously vetted by the NFL to be an NFL owner via his partial ownership with the Steelers. League leadership basically hand-selected the next guy who would be a partner in owners’ meetings and in business. That makes me wonder if the league wasn’t somehow involved in nudging Randy Lerner toward selling the team. If the league did the nudging, I’m also guessing it wasn’t Roger Goodell, but more likely some contingent of leading NFL owners.
Why though? After a labor battle and as the league moves forward into tenuous territory involving lawsuits over head injuries, Randy Lerner might have represented a real liability and business risk to the fraternity of NFL owners.
Colt McCoy’s concussion situation was about the highest profile head injury situation you could imagine. I don’t think it is a situation unique to the Browns and what happened on the field that night could have happened to nearly any franchise in the NFL a year ago. What could have scared the owners, though, was the reaction of the Browns after the fact.
The Browns reportedly worked with the NFL hand-in-hand investigating that situation, but the franchise was strangely silent for the days following the McCoy concussion situation. They left their first-year head coach hanging out to dry before Mike Holmgren finally came out angrily a few days later to deal with it. All this is stuff you already know.
So how does it end up coming back to Randy Lerner selling the team?
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the premier owners in the NFL like maybe Bob Kraft in New England and the Rooneys in Pittsburgh were dissatisfied with Randy Lerner’s outsourcing of himself in owners meetings to Mike Holmgren. It’s one thing to be an absentee landlord in running your football team and hiring a football person to handle football operations. To the fraternity of NFL owners, I am guessing it is quite another thing to assign football people to ownership duties.
When Bob Kraft and the rest of the owners are talking long-term strategy regarding massive legal issues involving labor negotiations and lawsuits from former players, they are dealing with issues that will assuredly outlive the contractual obligations that Mike Holmgren has to the Cleveland Browns. These are issues and decisions that are absolutely integral to the game of football and those who will own the franchises for decades, if not generations. If there was any inkling in league circles that Randy Lerner’s lack of involvement presented a real business risk to the entire league, it is reasonable to assume that other owners might think about pressuring a guy like Randy Lerner to sell.
Let’s say the other owners were a bit scared by Randy Lerner’s lack of involvement in the league meetings, particularly after the Colt McCoy concussion fallout. Randy makes a commitment to be more involved and starts doing media and says he’s going to be with the team every day. In the end though, the wheels were already in motion and the other NFL owners wanted a partner owner in Cleveland as opposed to a “steward” who would just as soon allow the city to own its own team. As popular as that sentiment might be with Browns fans and folks in Green Bay, it must sound like the single stupidest thing in the world to a group of guys who are building billion dollar assets that they will have the right to sell some day.
Again, this is me off on my own making things up, but it doesn’t feel all that outlandish as I put it down on this virtual paper. What do you think?