Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Boca Raton, FL – To say the Browns are evolving as an organization is trite because they always seem to be picking up the pieces from the latest regime blow-up.
But this time it feels different.
And it has less to do with the unconventional, new management team of Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Hue Jackson than you think. It has to do more with a person involved in placing those men in their new roles.
It may not have to do with a man, at all. But, rather, a woman – Dee Haslam, wife of Jimmy.
A year ago at the annual NFL meetings, Dee Haslam proclaimed herself an owner of the Browns, too, and added, “It’s a little sensitive from a female who’s run a business all her life to be referred to as ‘the spouse.’”
Thereafter, Dee Haslam’s bio in the official team media guide listed her as “owner and president of Cleveland Browns Foundation,” the team’s charity-giving arm. And in the past year, Dee Haslam has taken a much greater role in just about everything that goes on in the Browns’ headquarters, according to sources – except football, although she did sit on the coach and personnel executive search committee.
“I’m going to contribute where it’s best for me to contribute,” Dee Haslam said during a lunch break Tuesday at NFL meetings. “I mean, where my skill set lines up with the organization. We have a really great team and I just like it. I like football and the NFL, love Cleveland, and there’s something really good about being involved in the organization. Sports is fun.”
Not a novice: Since 1999, Dee Haslam has been executive producer and CEO of RIVR Media, a cable television production company based in Knoxville, TN. She entered the business as a teenager working for her father, Ross Bagwell, whose own production company led to the creation of HGTV.
Dee Haslam explained that her involvement in daily operations of the Browns stemmed from the evolution of her company able to prosper without her.
“When we bought the team [in August of 2012], I was running a company full time,” she said. “And when we bought the team it takes a little while to get my leadership in place at RIVR Media to have any time left over. We’ve moved to Cleveland, fell in love with Cleveland and just really were interested in the community and started working in the organization.”
With RIVR Media “doing really amazingly well,” Dee Haslam turned her energy towards the Browns, which was a dysfunctional mess.
Dee Haslam’s increased involvement in Browns operations coincided with the demise, behind-the-scenes, of ambitious former President Alec Scheiner. The Browns announced on March 4 that Scheiner was “stepping away,” but the business right-hand man of Jimmy Haslam actually had been out of the building – and out of the picture – since before the Super Bowl, a source said.
On Tuesday, Jimmy Haslam said, “Alec’s a really talented guy and did a great job for us, helped us immensely on the business side … Dee and I learned a lot from Alec, and he made some good input on football. Alec has the ability and wants to have more capacity in an organization, and that simply wasn’t an opportunity that he thought he would have here.”
Jimmy Haslam said that some of Scheiner’s duties would be filled internally and that a president would not be named in the short term, but “we’ll see over the long term.”
It was not lost on some insiders that Dee Haslam had a closed-door meeting with Scheiner in the owner’s suite in Arrowhead Stadium on the morning of the 15th game in Kansas City – with a team security member posted outside the door. Scheiner was scarcely seen thereafter.
When GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine were fired a week later, Dee Haslam assumed a seat on the search committee to replace them – and Scheiner was conspicuously absent.
“I loved the coaching search,” Dee Haslam said. “It was interesting. It was fun. I think I added value. There’s things I think I can add in a lot of different areas, probably not in the football area, however.”
She said that during the coaching search she “sat back and assessed” the interviews with candidates and came away impressed with Jackson’s “amazing” leadership ability and his “complete” passion for football.
Going forward: When Jimmy Haslam and the rest of the search committee concluded a second interview with Jackson, Dee Haslam represented the Browns at the crucial league meeting to vote approval of the St. Louis Rams’ lucrative relocation to Los Angeles.
“I’ve been going to the meetings, so it was … not anything different for me,” she said. “I’ve been in the room with other owners. Actually it was one of the best meetings there’ve been.”
She was joined at that league meeting by Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Buffalo Bills; Martha Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions; Carlie Irsay-Gordon, Kasey Foyt and Kalen Irsay, the daughters of owner Jim Irsay taking on more prominent roles with the Indianapolis Colts; and Katie Blackburn, executive vice president and daughter of Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown.
“There's more women involved than you realize and are seated at the table, at the owners' table,” Dee Haslam said. “It's wonderful to see women take an active role in the NFL.”
Dee Haslam’s introduction to league affairs really began when she was appointed to the NFL conduct committee in December of 2014.
But her deeper involvement in the Browns bears watching. She said her background in media and marketing and her family’s passion for education and charity endeavors in the community are natural areas of involvement.
I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see Dee Haslam assume an even greater presence inside the building and work to safeguard the organization from the dysfunction that has infected it for far too many years.
Just know that the new sheriff inside the Browns may not be a coach or general manager. It may be Dee Haslam.