Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has a friend in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
After the potential legal problems Haslam has faced in recent months, he needs all the friends he can find. At last count, seven Pilot Flying J employees have pleaded guilty to criminal charges relating to a scheme to bilk millions of dollars from trucking companies that thought they were receiving rebates.
Haslam has claimed a lack of knowledge about the scheme. His stance has been to assist in helping find those responsible for the program and make restitution to the affected companies.
Goodell, who was at the Browns' practice facility Thursday to help kick off USA Heads Up Football, an affiliation with Pop Warner Football, spoke to reporters for about seven minutes. Most of the questions centered on the rebate scheme and how if might affect Haslam's ownership of the Browns.
Goodell expressed faith in Haslam. The two have kept in close contact since the FBI raided Pilot Flying J's headquarters in Knoxville last April.
"He's as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot J," Goodell said. "He's working hard to correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends. He's kept me very much involved. He's been great about keeping us informed."
Haslam has been the picture of confidence during the times he's appeared publicly. At a short press conference on the first day of training camp eight days ago he said he expects everything to end well when asked about the possibility of being indicted.
The uncertainty puts the NFL in a precarious spot. Goodell was obviously pleased with landing an owner with incredible wealth and a passion to be hands-on in a way that wasn't the case with former owner Randy Lerner.
To use a football term, the FBI raid must have felt like a blindside hit to Goodell. He acknowledges the importance the Browns have in the league, and the thought of another ownership problem 18 years after Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore was unsettling.
Goodell said he asked Haslam if he was involved in the rebate scheme. He was assured there was no involvement.
"He's been very clear that he has no knowledge," Goodell said. "He's made that clear publicly and he's made it clear with you all."
The timing of the raid couldn't have been much worse. It happened about a week before the NFL draft, a time when offseason talk about the coming season begins to ramp up.
Haslam hasn't been noticeable at camp, perhaps because of the on-going investigation. Guilty pleas have been received from several mid-level executives, but the president and director of sales are still employed.
Haslam's contention is that the scheme took place at lower levels, essentially deploying the defense used by the IRS in its scandal about targeting certain groups. To date the NFL has let the legal process play out while lending support to Haslam.
"This is an issue where he's had some people in his organization that have not conducted themselves in a way that is capitulant to the way he wants," Goodell said. "He's fixing it, and he has to do that. Those things happen in big organizations. Jimmy is more disappointed than anybody. I don't think it's a matter for us at this moment."
The NFL has been criticized for the vetting process that approved the ownership of Haslam, who was part owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers before purchasing control of the Browns. Goodell contends that all the proper steps were taken.
"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 of any way we could have been aware of it. It wasn't disclosed to us."
As much as Haslam wants to close this chapter of his life, there is still more to learn.