A Mild Conspiracy Theory About the Sale of the Browns

Corporate photo of Jimmy Haslam from

Corporate photo of Jimmy Haslam from

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?

  • I think the new owner kind of looks like a chubby Tim Cook.

    Just wanted to share that thought.

  • Terminal Tower

    Why would you force out an owner who you could almost guarantee a win over each year? If I was an owner, I’d love to have a Lerner own a team that didn’t know how to create a winning organization, or didn’t care enough to get involved to create a winning team. Also, why were the Browns continually under the cap (I think this year by $20 -$25 million dollars)? I think Randy didn’t want to spend the $$, and told Holmgren to underspend each year. Why wouldn’t the Browns get a couple of attractive free agents when everyone could see the receivers were terrible, and we had no quality running backs. Randy sold because of two things, his Austin Villa team needs an infusion of $$, and while the team was valued supposedly at $720 million, he got over a billion dollars for the team

  • I love a good conspiracy theory, and when the population us small there’s less likelihood of the truth leaking. Truthers unite! To get a little deeper into the hole, Lerner was never a fan if raising concession and ticket prices if the product didn’t warrant it. Other owners don’t care so much. That could have easily added fuel to their fire, since that drives shared revenue up (somehow? – I think I read that once)

  • maxfnmloans

    Not a bad theory Craig. I can see how the other owners might look at Randy as the weak link. If the other owners are gung ho for the league and doing whatever they can to preserve it and continue sitting on their individual licenses to print money, then they’d be foolish not to try and weed out the perceived “liabilities”.

    It is a boys club and they probably don’t like the fact that he seems to want to have as little to do with it as possible.

    I think it may have more to do with the fact that a billion dollars is hard to say no to, no matter who you are, but this is certainly not far fetched. On the other hand, perhaps Randy wanted out and had been talking to other owners about it, trying to get things lined up before any word leaked, that way the message is easier to control

  • humboldt

    Interesting and plausible theory, Craig. However I do note that it implicates your longstanding defense of Lerner’s outsourcing of the franchise to Holmgren.

    Glad that this chapter is winding to a close and that there is at least an opportunity to become a leading (or at least credible) organization under Haslem.

  • Obviously it pokes a hole in that theory. I always considered that a sound theory from the fans’ perspective, but never really considered it from, say, Bob Kraft’s.

    The sale had me thinking from different perspectives, especially when Jimmy Haslam appears to be so hand-picked by the league.

  • humboldt

    Credit to you for being able to switch perspectives

  • dwhit110

    Because it’s not about winning, it’s about making money.

  • I like it. After reading this piece too on PFT – suggesting secretive information on concussion liability insurance could be gleaned from the Browns sale papers – you can totally see how the owner collective might want to replace their weakest link:

  • nj0

    Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation!

  • boomhauertjs

    If they were going after their weakest link, wouldn’t Mike Brown be an obvious choice?

  • mgbode

    It really depends on how the other owners view Holmgren. Plenty of ex-FB people were or became owners in the past. So, does the NFL-owner community feel that Holmgren is up to that task (as a future minority owner at least?). This was really his audition for such a role. If not, and the handling of the Colt-concussion situation was poor, then I could see them doing as you suggested.

    The other side of the coin is that Randy Lerner could have wanted out of the ownership role that he never really wanted in the first place. The NFL could have helped him select Haslam as a potential buyer in that situation as well.

    Too many moving parts here, but an interesting theory nonetheless.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It’s all about the benjamins baby!!!! Getting rid of Lerner was a bonus but don’t think for a minute it had anything other then getting one of their billionaire boys a better membership in the club.

  • eldaveablo

    Not to take this to X-Fileian extremes, but I have a hard time with coincidences. How odd is it that the Browns are basically Philadelphia Eagles Part Deux? If Banner replaces Holms (likely), and everyone else stays (who knows how likely?) That would make our Prez, GM, HC, and OC all Philly alums that all were there at the same time. I know this would be borderline Illuminati-level conspiracy planning, but that just seems like a huge coincidence.

    I feel like slapping myself for even bringing it up, but I figured while we’re talking conspiracy, might as well go big.

  • Dee P

    I don’t follow the bigger point….I get the all-Eagles weirdness…..but what am I missing? Or is that it…that they are all ex-Eagles?

  • dan

    I don’t buy it. The most obvious problem is that I think there are other owners the NFL would want to get rid of first. The Browns were selling out and making money, so nobody in the league offices would care that Lerner was incapable of putting together a winning team. And if a scapegoat was necessary over the McCoy incident, there were plenty of other people who could have been sacrificed.

  • I wasn’t talking about scapegoats. Real liability.

  • I don’t disagree that other owners may have been unhappy with Lerner’s lack of involvement, but I don’t think that is what was really going on. In case we all forget, Al Davis did whatever he wanted against the wishes of his fellow NFL owners for decades. I don’t think the other owners really have any power over any other owner in the end. Seems fairly simple to me that Al Lerner, at the time of his passing, wanted the team to remain under his family’s control for 10 years, at least from what I’ve read. It also seems pretty clear to me that Randy has not really wanted to own this franchise, and it’s been exactly 10 years since his father’s death. He fulfilled his father’s wishes and now wants to move on with his life.

  • dan

    Unpersuasive, since Lerner leaving doesn’t affect the league or the team’s potential liability, and there’s no real reason to think that any subsequent act on his part would significantly affect potential liability in the future.

  • Harv 21

    I challenge your first premise: that the league has any leverage over an owner to sell his franchise. I’d like to hear that conversation: “we’ll reduce your revenue sharing!” (pffft). “If you ever show up at our meeting no one will talk to you.” If owners could pressure other owners to sell, Al Davis, Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner would have been goners.

    I won’t go into the rest of your stuff, but none of it makes sense to me unless you’re fishing for a conspiracy theory. Something based on known facts seem more realistic:

    Randy didn’t want this ever, but (per the PD) he promised his mom he’d take it on after dad died. This team was not his desire to begin with and clearly never his passion. Current public perception, post-draft, is that the Browns are on the uptick. He’s been dying to get out, out of the public eye and his steady public flogging, out of Cleveland which is far away from his business interests and those things he is passionate about. The offer is good, real good, and the buyer is already league-vetted, which promises a quick exit without weeks of more press calls for updates. Mom relents, maybe a quick exit presser where he can honestly say that the team is on the right track and in good hands, an “I’ll never forget the passion here,” slam the limo door, lean back and sigh, dolly back, fade to black.

    Not as intriguing, but probably a whole lot closer to reality.

  • porckchopexpress

    I’m going to go Columbo here and agree with the article…
    Oh and there’s just one more thing.
    If the Browns inaction on McCoy’s concussion was the cause of the sale why weren’t the Rooney’s forced to sell when James Harrison knocked out 2 Browns in 1 game plus delivering the hit on McCoy and they imposed NO extra sanctions on him? Why didn’t Bob Kraft impose any sanctions on Brandon Merriweather when he tried to decapitate Todd Heap with the hit that started the refromation on concussions? And why wasn’t he forced to sell for not taking a strong stance against his player? I mean if your player takes such a hit and you put him back in the game after being CLEARED BY THE MEDICAL STAFF, than surely supporting the players who acknowledge willfully delivering such hits (I want to put people to sleep – J woman beating Harrison) has to be legally worse right?
    Is it possible that this entire theory is just another of the Clevelandcentric variety that assumes that the entire world is watching and caring what goes on here?

  • Leo C

    It’s possible this might have had to do with Lerner not being totally involved in the Browns and he eventually looked himself in the mirror one day and knew it. Besides the Dolans (indians) No other owner in past years has been criticized like Lerner especially being non-existent and his owning of a soccer team in another country never sat well either. Honestly, the Browns needed an owner and other football people who understood how to run a franchise and not just do it for the money (Holmgren). There have been so many colossal mistakes by this franchise and Lerner was involved in nearly all of them. The dude was clueless but kept it going to honor his father but it was not a comfortable position for him and I give him some props for finally letting go. As for conspiracy theories, I love em, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other owners wanted to push Lerner out, but I think this was all Lerner and no one else

  • Tron

    I wonder if it wasn’t more of the other owners pressuring Jimmy Haslam to try and make Randy an offer instead of trying to force Randy out. I’m sure they knew if they could convince someone to appraoch Randy with a strong offer, it would get him thinking.

  • Henry Brown

    I can see where the billionaires don’t want the millionaires being privy to the workings of their club, more realistically, Al Lerner asked Randy not to sell the team for 10 years after his passing. Guess how long its been? Randy couldn’t wait to get out from under this thing.

  • Hopwin

    The Browns haven’t been selling out, attendance has been declining year over year to the point where they have had multiple games over the past two years with the threat of blackouts hanging over them. As to being profitable it is a canard, all NFL franchises are profitable.

  • BIKI024

    what issue could the NFL possibly have with Randy having NFL poster boy Mike “Big Show” Holmgren as the face/president of the team? besides, it’s not like the Browns were in any danger of losing the fan base or revenues were down, or that he was cheap.

    just seems to me that the timing was right and he found a good steward in Haslam to keep the team in Cleve and to hopefully bring in a championship culture, which it seems like he did. probably his best move he has made as an owner, mazel tov Randy!

  • steve-o

    Randy sold the team because;
    a) his ten years were up
    b) he recieved a favorable offer that would also benefit Cleveland
    c) he is not passionate about the NFL or football in general
    d) he has other interests and other places he’d like to be

  • DT91nmj

    Fellow conspiracy theorists could read the Rooney statement and go “hhhuuummmmm??? May-be!??!”

  • Von Mises


  • Liability is subject to ongoing actions. If your weakest link is “equal” to you, there is certainly a possibility that your weakest link opens you up to liability if you’re part of the same group.