Committing Fraud Doesn’t Get Sports Owners Tossed Out

As a sports owner, what does it take to be tossed out of a league? Apparently getting caught on an audio device in the privacy of your house  complaining an aide dating a black man and using owner provided tickets and being seen with a black man trumps cheating people out of tens of millions of dollars does the trick. The National Basketball Association is attempting to get rid of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and have been stymied so far because Sterling is battling his wife in court of the Clippers owner mental competency.

While that is going on, the Cleveland Browns owner Jim Haslum has settled without any acknowledgement of guilt government charges of fraud being committed by his company for $92 million. The company, Pilot Flying J, cheated customers. Ten employees of the truck-stop company copped guilty pleas and admitted taking part in the scheme to cheat customers out of promised fuel rebates and discounts. An NFL told spokesman Greg Aiello told the NBC Sports’s website that “There have been no allegations of any personal conduct that is in violation of NFL policy.”

For the government, it is yet another settlement where the alleged guilty party neither admits nor denies the charges. Haslum joins New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon in the let’s not admit or deny charges and pay a settlement in some sort of scheme.

Wilpon ended up agreeing to pay $162 million as restitution to Bernie Madoff victims in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Major League Baseball, at least publicly, has had no problems with Wilpon and his brother-in-law Saul Katz in the aftermath of the settlement. Wilpon apparently had some degree of involvement but the settlement closed the books on Wilpon, Katz and Madoff and Major League Baseball looked the other way.

Apparently white collar activities involving criminal investigators and sports owners is no big deal. Wilpon and Haslum will go on owning a team despite what should be blows to a sports league’s image. Donald Sterling on the other hand because he got caught in his own home on an audio device and had his words blasted publicly by TMZ’s website is persona non grata.

If you don’t pay your bills, a sports league can throw you out. Los Angeles Dodgers former owner Frank McCourt can tell you all about that. There is enough written about former Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose who gambled away a fortune of money in Atlantic City and subsequently lost his football team in the 1980s.

Getting arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs as an owner will not get you thrown out of the NFL’s fraternity. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was picked up by police in May and charged with one count of operating while intoxicated, a C misdemeanor and one count of operating a vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substances or its metabolite in the body, also a C misdemeanor. Irsay was allegedly taking oxycodone and/or hydrocodone.

Jim Irsay could have been involved in a serious car accident and was at the very least is irresponsible. He will be going back to court in August to answer the charges.

He will not be thrown out of the NFL.

In January, the owner of the Minnesota Vikings Zygi Wilf and family members appealed a court order which forced the family to pay $100 million in damages and legal fees over a 1992 agreement to develop an apartment complex in Montville, New Jersey. The court found that the Wilfs committed fraud, violated civil racketeering laws and deprived a former business partner of contractual payments.

The NFL has done nothing to sanction Wilf.

Neither Haslum nor Wilf were charged with committing NFL crimes so their personal conduct apparently doesn’t violate NFL policy.

The NFL ownership is an exclusive and private club and it appears that the NFL can make up ownership rules of conduct as they please. NFL players have to be careful about the choice of names they came use to taunt other players on the field but the NFL isn’t warning one of the members of the exclusive club Washington’s Daniel Snyder that to some his team’s nickname is very offensive.

Committing fraud, stealing money is fine in the owners’s circle. Being caught saying racial charged things in the privacy of a home is not. The ironic part of the Donald Sterling case is that the National Basketball Association had a lengthy and documented record of Sterling saying things and did nothing over a 30 year period to sanction him.

In the NBA, racism is bad; sexual harassment is okay even with a court verdict finding an owner the New York Knicks James Dolan guilty of sexual harassment in the Auncha Browne Sanders-Isiah Thomas case.  On October 2, 2007, the jury returned a verdict finding Thomas and Madison Square Garden liable for sexual harassment. Browne-Sanders was awarded $11.6 million in punitive damages and eventually the Garden settled with her and she got $11.5 million.

Removing Dolan from the NBA was never an option nor was sanctioning him. After all Dolan owns the Knicks, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Madison Square Garden, the Madison Square Garden TV network but more importantly his company is Cablevision, a multiple systems operator which buys programming from NBA partners Disney (ESPN) and Turner (TNT) as well as NBA TV. You cannot treat an ATM machine with disrespect and NBA Commissioner David Stern had no problems with Dolan as Knicks owner. He brought in money while Sterling is just an owner of a team.

If you watch what you say, you seemingly are okay with the powers to be that run sports if you are an owner. Commit a crime? Doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. Sexual harassment? No problem. Wilpon, Haslum, Wilf and Dolan are members in good standing in the ultimate men’s club, Donald Sterling? Not so much.

Evan Weiner can be reached at [email protected]. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available ( ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, ( ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA ( ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports ( and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition ( ) are available from e-book distributors globally. 2014 e-book, sports business 2010-14( ). The e-books are available from e-book distributors globally