Youngstown native Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s case only example of how NFL handles owners' legal troubles

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - The FBI investigation into Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam over allegations his company, Pilot Flying J, cheated trucking companies out of rebates is unfamiliar territory for the NFL.

The only other case in NFL history when an owner was facing legal trouble involves Youngstown native Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

"You had a lot of people who were Cleveland fans and Pittsburgh fans who, all of a sudden, were 49ers fans,” said Ralph Zerbonia, a Youngstown resident.

When DeBartolo owned the San Francisco 49ers, his hometown rallied behind him.

“I think, really, it made for a lot of excitement in the area,” said Zerbonia.

“The Super Bowl became personal,” he said.

In 1997, everything changed.

"I think it took a long time, even for reporters and news directors in this market, to believe that Eddie Jr. is in this kind of trouble,” said Bob Hannon, the former sports director at WYTV in Youngstown.

DeBartolo was accused of failing to report former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards extorted $400,000 from him for a casino license.

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to federal charges. He was sentenced to two years probation and a $1 million fine.

As the scandal broke, DeBartolo resigned as CEO and turned the team over to his sister.

"I think most felt that he was above this. He was too smart for this, that Eddie Jr. was too rich for this,” Hannon said.

The NFL handed down its own punishment. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended DeBartolo from the league for one year and fined him $1 million.

Youngstown residents were disappointed.

“He was a hometown guy who had made good and here he was messing with the wrong people,” said Barbara Ampstutz, a Youngstown resident.

“He made the wrong choice,” Zerbonia said.

Once a fixture in Youngstown, Hannon said DeBartolo virtually disappeared after his conviction.

"He would be the kind of guy, when he owned the team, he would call the newsroom and be like, ‘I have Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, c'mon over and talk to them,” Hannon said.

“He is rarely seen in Youngstown. He lives in Tampa. I believe he has a ranch out in Montana. I'd say the past decade you could count on one hand the number of times people say they see Eddie Jr. in the Mahoning Valley,” Hannon said.

NewsChannel5 investigators requested an interview with Eddie DeBartolo Jr. He declined to comment.

Jimmy Haslam is not facing any criminal charges. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed support for Haslam, calling him a "man of integrity."

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