Getting Owned: 10 Sports Team Owners Who Were Suspended, Banned, Or Forced To Sell
Things are getting pretty hot in Cleveland for a certain newbie Browns owner. In April, the FBI alleged that executives of the Pilot Flying J gas station chain, which was founded in 1958 by the father of current CEO and new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III, had been skimming money from fuel rebates owed to trucking companies. Since the news broke, an employee has testified that management was aware of the scheme, though Haslam denies previous knowledge of the misdeeds—even telling ESPNCleveland that he is "absolutely not" selling the Browns.
But as broken down by Browns blog DawgsByNature, the federal investigation could ultimately compromise Haslam's ownership of the team, and even his freedom. If indisputable evidence emerges and Haslam gets suspended from operations or compelled to sell the team, he'd find himself in rarefied air: the rogues gallery of sports team owners who have received such severe punishments by their leagues is small, but distinguished.
Horace Fogel, Philadelphia Phillies (1909-1912)
Banned: 1912 (Reason: Delusional, drunken tirade)
Philly Sports History has a fascinating retrospective of Fogel's stint as owner of the Phillies. Fogel, the story goes, was a figurehead. The team was financially backed by Cubs president Charles Murphy and the Taft family of Cincinnati. After a night of heavy drinking, which was not so uncommon for Fogel, he unleashed a one-man campaign against the National League in which he accused league president Thomas Lynch of instructing umpires to call games in favor of the league-leading Giants and against the Cubs and Phillies. (Philly finished 30.5 games out.) The charges were ultimately found to be unsubstantiated and Fogel was banned from baseball for life.
William D. Cox, Philadelphia Phillies (1943-1943)
Banned: 1943 (Betting on baseball)
Cox bought the Phillies in March of 1943. He would be out of baseball by 1944. The new owner fired manager Bucky Harris in the middle of the season, and friends of Harris told commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that Cox had been gambling on Phillies games.
Via Cox's New York Times obituary:
Mr. Cox, who had already been forced by the commissioner to get out of horse racing because of that sport's involvement with gambling, at first denied the charge. Then he admitted it, but said he had not known about the rule barring an owner from betting on his own team. He said he had stopped as soon as he was told about it.
Later he said he had made only small, sentimental bets with friends, even though he had previously admitted to the commissioner that he had placed bets with bookmakers, a false admission, he later argued, that he had made to smoke out a disloyal Phillies employee.
Cox would end up selling the Phillies to the Robert R. M. Carpenter family, who owned the team until 1981.
Harry Wismer, New York Titans (1959-1963)
Forced out: 1963 (Franchise insolvency)
Pro Football Researchers has the incredible story of the 1962 New York Titans. In Week 3, the AFL team's players went on strike after not receiving their paychecks for the first two weeks. Owner Harry Wismer came up with the money mid-week and the team suited up, but he wasn't able to sustain that magic act for long.
Some paychecks bounced, as the Irving Trust Company paid checks only up to the variable amount of the team's account. First come, first served was a very real principle as applied to Titans paychecks. The team no longer kept the locker room stocked with toiletries, the trainer didn't have enough tape for all the players, towels and socks were no longer laundered regularly, and the team broke down into distrustful cliques.
On Monday, assistant AFL commissioner Milt Woodard told the press that some Titans paychecks for the San Diego game on October 28 had bounced. Woodard added that "we do understand that payment will be made." Woodard addressed the possibility of future reoccurrences: "I don't think the league will permit this for very long. We're morally obligated not to permit this to happen. We want the Titans to settle their own business. Yet we assure the commissioner will step in if it happens again." On Wednesday, the public relations agency representing the Titans quit for lack of payment.
There are more details like that in PFR's story, and they have another article on the franchise's sale:
[Commissioner Joe] Foss had given Wismer over a month to sell the team. When the season ended without a sale, Foss decided to invoke Article I, section 14, of the league constitution, which read:
“The Commissioner may, after notice and hearing, expel any member club, any director, officer or stockholder of the American Football League, cancel or forfeit the franchise of any member club or the interest of any director, officer or stockholder in any club in the American Football League ... if, in his opinion, it, he or they are guilty of any act or acts which are or may be detrimental to the American Football League or to the sport of professional football, provided the Commissioner’s decision is approved and ratified by a vote of three-fourths of the member clubs.”
The deplorable financial state of the Titans could easily be considered detrimental.
The AFL had been covering the team's payroll since November. In March of 1963, the Gotham Football Club -- a five-man syndicate led by Sonny Werblin -- purchased the Titans for $1 million. That April, the team became the New York Jets.
George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010)
Suspended: 1974 (Election fraud)
The fiery, once-loathed-but-posthumously-kinda-loved Tampa shipbuilder was suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for two years in late-1974 when he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. Steinbrenner only ended up missing one full season after Kuhn lifted the suspension nine months early.
Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-1996)
Suspended: 1977 (Tampering)
During the 1976 World Series, the burgeoning media mogul and new Braves owner revealed his intent to poach impending free agent Gary Matthews away from San Francisco, telling Giants owner Bob Lurie, "No matter what you offer Gary, I'll do better." Because the "obviously inebriated" (his own words) Turner was speaking before the start of free agency, he was suspended from Braves baseball operations for one year by commissioner Kuhn.
"I'm thankful he didn't order me shot," Turner said of Kuhn when the suspension was upheld.
George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010)
Suspended: 1983 (Intemperateness)
Again. In 1983, The Boss was suspended for a week after calling the integrity of umpires Darryl Cousins and John Shulock into question: "Umpires Cousins and Shulock, who are two umpires who worked during the strike, and who other umpires refuse to talk to, have both been put on the same umpiring team and it has resulted in a very poor team," Steinbrenner said in a statement after star outfielder Dave Winfield was ejected from a game following a first-inning dust-up while the opposing player(s) were not.
A.L. president Lee MacPhail later called Steinbrenner's remarks "intemperate" and promised disciplinary action, prompting Steinbrenner to retort, "I will not have my people nor myself be gagged from making what I believe is a factual statement."
George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010)
Banned: 1990-93 (General shadiness)
And, again. In 1990, it was discovered that Steinbrenner had paid notorious gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield, whom The Boss once derisively referred to as "Mr. May". (Spira never found anything.) Steinbrenner was initially banned from baseball for life by commissioner Fay Vincent in July of 1990, though new commish Bud Selig reinstated him in 1993.
Marge Schott, Cincinnati Reds (1984-1999)
Suspended: 1993 (Racism and Hitler sympathy)
Forced out: 1996 (More of that trademark Hitler sympathy)
The former Reds owner was suspended from baseball for the 1993 season after it was reported that she referred to Jews as "sneaky bastards" and African Americans as "gorillas". She had also said that "Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far." Beyond the time off, Schott was fined $25,000 and required to "attend and complete multi-cultural training programs."
Rick Reilly's 1996 SI profile of Schott claims that the training had little effect: "The course didn't really take. Sending Schott to sensitivity training is like sending a pickpocket to a Rolex convention."
Also in that story:
As for Adolf Hitler, she takes a compassionate view. "He was O.K. at the beginning," she says. "He rebuilt all the roads, honey. You know that, right? He just went too far." Two weeks ago she repeated that opinion in an interview with ESPN, setting off a storm of protest, including outrage from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, and casting baseball in an embarrassing light yet again.
After this round of comments, Schott was forced out of the Reds' daily operations; when she sold the franchise in 1999 (reportedly under pressure to do so), MLB had still not given her back control of the team.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr., San Francisco 49ers (1977-2000)
Suspended: 1999 (Acquiesced to extortion attempt)
In 1998, DeBartolo pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to report former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards' $400,000 extortion demands in return for a riverboat casino license. Via the San Francisco Chronicle:
In testimony leading to DeBartolo's admission, FBI agent Jeffrey Santini described an alleged two- year courtship in which DeBartolo at first resisted but then finally agreed last year to pay Edwards the money -- in crisp $100 bills -- to help him win the final riverboat license to be awarded by the state's gaming commission. DeBartolo got the license but later withdrew from the project when he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the deal.
DeBartolo voluntarily stepped aside from the 49ers during the investigation and was ultimately suspended for one season by commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 1999. DeBartolo ceded control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, a year later.
Glen Taylor, Minnesota Timberwolves (1994-present)
Suspended: 2000 (Violating spirit of the salary cap)
In December 2000, the Timberwolves owner was suspended until the following September after his team reached a secret agreement with Joe Smith that violated NBA salary cap rules. Smith had signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with Minny that included an arrangement for the team to give him a six-year deal at the end of the season. In addition to Taylor's suspension, the franchise was fined $3.5 million and required to forfeit its next five first round draft picks.
Frank McCourt, Los Angeles Dodgers (2004-2012)
Forced out: 2011-12 (Gross financial mismanagement)
In August 2011, after a bevy of embarrassing stories detailing Frank McCourt's messy divorce and financial mismanagement of the Dodgers, MLB assumed operations of the team. "The Dodgers have been one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports, and we owe it to their legion of loyal fans to ensure that this club is being operated properly," Bud Selig said.
One of the primary issues that forced MLB's hand was the impending sale of the Dodgers' television rights. McCourt had arranged a 20-year, $2.5 billion deal with Fox Sports that would have enabled him to continue operating the team. Thing is, that figure was substantially lower than what the deal would be worth on an open market because McCourt was desperate for cash flow and had no leverage. Ultimately, the team was sold for $2 billion to a syndicate that included Magic Johnson and the financial services firm Guggenheim Partners. The group would quickly confirm MLB's suspicions about Fox's original lowball TV contract by consummating a 25-year pact worth over $7 billion.
Dan Borislow, Boca Raton magicJack (2010-2011)
Terminated: 2011 (Everything you can imagine)
When the millionaire owner of the Boca Raton magicJack had his team terminated by the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league, little reason was given. "After careful consideration, the Board of Governors of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) voted on Tuesday to terminate the Boca Raton based magicJack franchise," was all the press release contained. But it's not hard to find cause. Contributing factors may have been:
- A players union grievance, in which the league's investigation found that Borislow's conduct was "inappropriate, and either included offensive disparaging language or were detrimental to the league, the players and other teams." (Deadspin later revealed that, amongst other things, he told players to call him "daddy".)
- The team had no front office and no web site. Borislow was unconcerned with selling tickets, refused to display league-mandated sponsorship ads, and fired the head coach after a 3-0 start.
- Emails that directly called the league office "a royal pain in the ass," accused sponsors of being "mobsters," and contained general racism and sexism.
When Borislow contested his termination, the legal battle resulted in the league itself suspending operations. Explained ESPN, "The league said from the beginning it did not have the funds to sustain a long fight in court."
Honorable Mention: John Spano, Islanders (Owner-ish April-July 1997)
"Walked away" from deal: 1997 (Was complete fraud)
John Spano, the owner of a supposedly-successful Dallas-based aircraft leasing company, tried buying the Islanders with Monopoly money. Via the NY Times:
Spano had agreed to pay John Pickett, then the Islanders' owner, $165 million for the team and its cable television contract. Problem: He never had the money. Spano had persuaded Fleet Bank to lend him $80 million by falsely claiming a net worth of $230 million. Despite a $16.8 million wire transfer from the bank never materializing, Pickett allowed the deal to close and Spano controlled the team for over three months.
For the more than three months that Spano actually owned the Islanders, he blew into town on corporate jets, conveyed himself in chauffeured limousines and bivouacked in sumptuous hotel suites. General manager Mike Milbury spoke excitedly about spending Spano's millions on free agents.
In July, Pickett regained control of the team until the NHL approved the franchise's sale to a group led by Steven Gluckstern in early 1998. For the fraud, Spano was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison. But at least he has an upcoming "30 for 30" to show for his troubles: