The Raid of Pilot Flying J – WFNY Top 10 Cleveland Sports Stories of 2013: No. 7

The Raid of Pilot Flying J 595

If you thought that 2012 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2013 proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, and apperances in postseasons and courtrooms. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last five years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the 10 biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.

The Raid of Pilot Flying J 595

It is difficult to avoid putting on that old comfortable sweater of Cleveland sports misery. That ratty thing has holes in it, so it shouldn’t be worn in public anymore, but anyone who covers Cleveland sports has undoubtedly spent many days, weeks or decades wearing it, willingly or not. And yet, it’s impossible to avoid it with a story like the raid on Pilot Flying J and how it impacted the Cleveland sports scene in 2013.

WFNY’s Top 10
Sports Stories of 2013

No. 10: Kyrie Irving, All-Star
No. 9: Cavs sign Andrew Bynum
No. 8: Tribe walk-off wins
No. 7: The Raid of Pilot Flying J
No. 6: Tuesday, December 24
No. 5: Wednesday, December 25
No. 4: Thursday, December 26
No. 3: Friday, December 27
No. 2: Monday, December 30
No. 1: Tuesday, December 31

It took a long time for me to realize that the misery montage that runs on ESPN wasn’t anti-Cleveland as much as it is just a lazy placeholder which no Cleveland team has been able to either provide a new, healthier context for or displace altogether. Like all Cleveland fans, I hope someday that the montage will have a new intro. “Remember these? Here’s all the misery that Cleveland fans went through before. . .” fill-in-the-blank victory.

But forget the montage. That’s reserved for on-field heartache. This past April, merely having a losing football team would have been a welcome relief compared to finding out that the new “breath-of-fresh-air” owner, Jimmy Haslam, who the city of Cleveland had pushed on them by the NFL, was under investigation after his real business was raided by a joint force of FBI and IRS agents.

At this point, it’s difficult to remember the goodwill and positive feelings that surrounded the Jimmy Haslam ownership before that symbolic April 15th raid down in Tennessee. The man who seemed to represent everything that Randy Lerner didn’t was now an even riskier proposition than the man that Tony Grossi accidentally but aptly termed “pathetic” and “irrelevant” to the whole world on Twitter.

Jimmy Haslam and his wife rolled into town like confident, humble lottery winners. Jimmy rubbed elbows with fans in the Dawg Pound. His wife used her expertise in television to give the team a new, fresh face and relevance with a special TV show on the Travel Channel. Haslam had requisite deep pockets, seemed to love football as much or more than Browns fans, and his tortured grimaces in the owner’s box during Pat Shurmur’s final gasps as head coach were so refreshing it probably brought grateful tears to many Browns fans’ eyes. Little did we know, those might have been the best days of Jimmy’s ownership.

A mere six months after stepping away from CEO duties at Pilot Flying J, Jimmy Haslam suddenly went back to the job in February. That headline at WaitingForNextYear drew 46 comments that ran the gamut, but nobody could have known what would come next. It all makes so much more sense now. Jimmy Haslam likely got word of the forthcoming disturbance in the legal force and his hand-picked CEO John Compton shouldn’t have to stand and answer for sins that pre-dated him, so Jimmy went back to his “first love.”

That was only two months before the bomb was dropped in Tennessee, with reverberations shaking the earth beneath the feet of Cleveland’s most beloved cultural property, the Cleveland Browns. And lest we forget, April 15th was a mere ten days before the Cleveland Browns were on the clock for the 2013 NFL draft. Certainly Chuck Klosterman can’t forget it as he felt he was left twisting in the wind with reduced access to the team after going out of his way to be in Berea to cover the event.

The negative uncertainty of Pilot Flying J raid had no direct precedent in Cleveland for Browns fans, but that comfy, miserable sweater, has seen so much. Cleveland sports fans never get to be the Ferdinand Magellan of sports misery that guides the unprecedented expeditions across the most dangerous, uncharted waters the earth has to offer, but they are the all-too-willing cartographers along for the ride. It doesn’t even make most of us cry anymore as we shrug and mark down the latest never-before-seen landmark that others can see on the map and avoid in the future.

This one seemed even more unfair as Jimmy Haslam was a guy who had been imported (from the Steelers of all teams) by the NFL themselves, to buy and be caretaker for the beloved Browns. It was a story that couldn’t have had any less to do with Cleveland, except that it was specially imported for our pleasure.Gee, thanks NFL!

As the calendar turns to 2014, the impact of that raid on Pilot Flying J is still unknown, as are the potential criminal charges. Until the situation reaches some kind of actual conclusion, the uncertainty will continue to hang over the team for Browns fans. To think all we ever wanted to do was be football fans and enjoy our team. Yet, we’re given a potential nightmare that sits there like a poison Cracker Jack prize that we’re slowly rotting our teeth to grasp with our sugar-stained fingers.

Cleveland sports fans know that assuming anything is a dangerous proposition, but the residual options aren’t that great either. For Browns fans, the team is now owned by a guy who either had no qualms about fraudulently profiting off his least sophisticated clients, or didn’t know his giant, profitable company was ripping off the very customers that would have willingly made him filthy rich.

That’s not much of a choice, but it’s what 2013 wrought. On the bright side, I think it’s a little too abstract to make an ESPN misery montage.

  • Harv 21

    “It was a story that couldn’t have had any less to do with Cleveland, except that it was specially imported for our pleasure.”

    And that’s the most amazing, “woe-is-us” part. We can’t claim that even in some indirect way that we helped create a monster. We can’t even figure out a way to blame Banner because the league shotgunned their partnership, too. Of all the billionaires eager to enter the NFL game the anal, image-protective league bestows us with what is at best a PR nightmare, distraction and resource drain, and what is at worst an impending sale that will plunge us into yet another total regime rebuild. Perfect.

  • Elliot Kennel

    Great article and captures quite a bit of the sentiment surrounding the whole scandal. It is disingenuous, however, to credit Jimmy Haslam for going back to Pilot Flying J out of a self-sacrificing desire to shield his “successor” from the impending scandal. There is no evidence that he knew anything about the sting, nor that anything was going to be corrected, until they got caught. Rather, it is much more likely that this was part of a sham that Haslam used to win the approval of the transfer of the Browns as a full-time resident owner with a house in Bratenahl,, and once this was complete, the sham was dropped and he went back to doing what he was going to do all along. ,