Pilot Flying J's Legal Troubles May be Trickling Down to Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND -- So far Jimmy Haslam's woes have been confined to Pilot Flying J. However, there may be hints the company's legal troubles are carrying over to his other passion -- the National Football League's Cleveland Browns.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the professional sports world was abuzz with news that the Cleveland Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round draft pick. The move came as a surprise to football fans because the Browns tapped Richardson as their 2012 overall No. 3 draft pick a year after he was a star player on the University of Alabama's national championship team.

Haslam bought the Cleveland Browns in August 2012 from former owner Randy Lerner in a deal reported at the time to be worth approximately $1 billion. At the time, Haslam stepped down from his role at Pilot Flying J, only to return to the CEO seat in February.

While the Browns struggle on the field -- and have turned in some lackluster seasons of late -- Richardson has played well. However, he came with a fully guaranteed deal worth $20.5 million over the four years, with a $13.3 signing bonus. He also has no offset language, which means he’ll receive the whole $20.5 million even if he signs with another team before the four years are up, according to Forbes.

With that kind of price tag, the report questions whether the motivation behind the trade was money -- specifically the cost of Haslam and Pilot Flying J's legal battle. Haslam has stated that he will not step down from the team; however, plans have already been put in place for his father, Pilot Flying J founder Jim Haslam, to run the Browns should his son not be able to as a result of his company’s legal problems, according to Forbes. In addition, Halsam sold his ownership of a minor league baseball team earlier this summer.

In May, Haslam addressed the attendees at the Northeast Ohio National Football Foundation Awards Banquet and apologized to the football community for any distractions brought on by the April 15 federal raid of Pilot Flying J's Knoxville, Tenn., headquarters.

In July, Pilot Flying J agreed to a class-action lawsuit settlement. The deal calls for the company to pay the plaintiffs 100 percent of their losses plus 6-percent interest, and to cover all attorneys' fees for customers in the class.

Following the Richardson trade yesterday afternoon, Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner explained to ESPN that the team saw an opportunity to improve and took it.

Pilot Flying J operates more than 650 retail locations and is the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America. The Cleveland Browns are currently 0-2 on the season.

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