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JOE BIDDLE: Cleveland Browns and Vanderbilt have what in common? Troubles

What do Vanderbilt’s football program and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam have in common?

Both are undergoing investigations that could lead to criminal charges. 

Jimmy Haslam is also Owner/CEO of the Knoxville based Pilot Flying J Company. On April 15, the FBI conducted a raid on the company’s headquarters. The company is suspected of alleged rebate fraud. Jimmy Haslam is the brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. 

The FBI released an affidavit that included transcripts of secretly recorded conversations among the sales staff. It was reported that the dialogue painted a scheme to defraud trucking companies of fuel rebates. 

Since then the Wall Street Journal reported that Flying J has $4 billion in debt. Five members of the sales staff have entered guilty pleas to mail fraud. They are cooperating with federal investigators. That usually spells trouble for the person who sits on top of the flagpole. 

Despite the news, Haslam remains firm on insisting he will not sell the Browns. He told ESPN Cleveland he has invested $5 million to remodel the team’s facilities and plans to dump $100 million to upgrade the stadium. 

“Since October, we put together a completely new front office, hired a new head coach with two really good coordinators, sold naming rights to the stadium and went through free agency and the draft,” Haslam told ESPN Cleveland. 

I can’t imagine NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league owners enjoy such negative publicity, especially for a new owner who had been vetted by the league. 

The intricacies of the case indicate it will drag on into the future. 

Over on West End, Vanderbilt officials are still sweating out an investigation being conducted by the Metro Sex Crimes Unit and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. 

We know the allegations surround an alleged incident that occurred on Vanderbilt’s campus, reportedly in a dorm room.  

Four unnamed Vanderbilt football players have been suspended from the football team, as well as the school. Charges could range from sexual abuse, sexual assault to rape. A Vanderbilt coed is at the center of the investigation. She too is unnamed, although it has been learned that the 21-year old is also employed by Vanderbilt and is the alleged victim in the incident. 

Since the incident and some Vanderbilt releases full of apologies and commitment to get to the bottom of the case, school officials have gone silent except for coach James Franklin’s TV spots intended to sell football season tickets in which Franklin extends last year’s theme of “A Change Is Coming.’’ 

It was clever and effective then, not so much now. 

Athletic Director David Williams and Franklin have been buttoned up since the initial press releases. 

Board of Trust member John Ingram, arguably the football program’s biggest supporter on the board, talked with The Tennessean recently. 

“One thing I can say is Vanderbilt is not going to sweep anything under the rug. I don’t think there was any attempt to do that, nor should there ever be. At this point, you address it straight ahead and look hard at what we’re doing to reinforce the message,” Ingram told Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge. 

There is one worrisome aspect. The alleged event occurred June 23. It was reported to Vanderbilt Police, which then contacted Metro Police, as Vanderbilt does not have the expertise to investigate sex crimes. Metro Sex Crimes Unit was not contacted until June 26. Why the delay? 

Meanwhile, the days have turned into weeks. All is quiet.  

Sports Columnist Joe Biddle is a four-time sports writer of the year in Tennessee and a 2013 inductee to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at

Posted on: 7/11/2013


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