Russ Brandon resigned this week from his position as the president and managing partner of Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which oversees the Bills and Sabres, Tim Graham reported Tuesday. Brandon's resignation follows an internal investigation into allegations of inappropriate relationships with female employees.
Brandon, who began his career with the Bills as executive director of marketing and business development in 1997, is credited for helping the team hit its highest mark for season-ticket sales in 2015. For many fans, though, he's the face of The Drought, writes Vic Carucci. Brandon was also one of the key figures in bringing the World Junior Hockey Championship to Buffalo, writes John Vogl.
Many readers had questions about what led to Brandon's departure, so we reached out to Graham.
From Ryan Bradley: Does the investigation that Kim initiated have a connection with the #MeToo movement, or is this just a standard of holding all positions in a high standard of accountability? As a lifelong Buffalo sports fan, I feel great having progressive-thinking owners that believe in treating all employees with respect and equality.
From Patrick McDevitt: Is the #MeToo movement coming to professional sports? Details here are sketchy, but the question is: Would this have been a fireable offense five or 10 years ago?
Graham: The Pegulas have been embarrassed by this episode, but my information indicates they acted swiftly and decisively after investigating. The #MeToo movement mattered; it's forcing us to think and act differently when it comes to how people in power treat those whose lives and careers are under their control.
The #MeToo movement reached sports months ago, and rightfully so. Carolina Panthers founder Jerry Richardson is being forced to sell his team because Sports Illustrated in December reported allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment by Richardson and of monetary settlements. Another Sports Illustrated story spotlighted troubling issues within the Dallas Mavericks front office.
Would this have been a fireable offense 10 years ago? Good question. My guess is probably not, because far too often in sports — and in life — issues get swept aside, people in power look the other way, and nobody wants to cause trouble if it's easier to pretend something unpleasant isn't occurring. Or if it's merely "better business" to quietly pay somebody off along with a nondisclosure agreement.
Ten years ago I'd probably have predicted Brandon would find another gig in big-league sports pretty quickly. I doubt that will happen now.
From Adam Aramino: Is there any legal action pending within the organization on any side?
Graham: None that I'm aware, although civil lawsuits wouldn't surprise me by anybody who has felt wronged either in this situation or from past incidents that haven't been brought to light yet.
From Evan Zinger: Any clue on whether sexual misconduct referred to workplace harassment or a consensual relationship deemed inappropriate?
Graham: I specifically didn't use the phrase "sexual misconduct" because that's a legally defined term in New York State. It's a Class-A misdemeanor, with lack of consent an express condition. The standard of "sexual misconduct" within the workplace is spelled out by company human-resources policies — if at all — and varies from employer to employer. For instance, some companies permit bosses and subordinates to have personal relationships, to date, to get married. I used the phrases "personal misconduct" and "inappropriate relationships" carefully.
I also mentioned "other job-related issues that were uncovered" in reference to discoveries the Pegulas made about Brandon's general job performance.
From u/Burnin_that_2_Smoke on Reddit: How long were the allegations known against Russ before this was all released to the public?
Graham: The inappropriate relationship that became the first domino in Brandon's downfall was one of the worst-kept secrets among the Bills and Sabres rank-and-file employees and prominent people within the local business community. I began hearing about it in early November. The relationship was considered consensual. So, to me, it was nothing more than gossip.
How long did the Pegulas know? I can't say for certain, but my information suggests maybe for a few weeks. That could be directly attributed to the fact the Pegulas live in Florida for tax/residency requirements and aren't in their Western New York offices every day. Employees have noted to me that they hope Kim Pegula's becoming president of the teams will mean she's around more.
From u/KeepOnKeepingOn on Reddit: How much input did Russ truly have on football-related decisions, over his entire time here?
Graham: Different levels of influence at different times. He was the Bills' general manager in 2008 and 2009, although we never really knew who was in charge of making the draft picks then. Tom Modrak handled college scouting, but coach Dick Jauron also had significant say. When Ralph Wilson became an absentee owner and then in the months after the founder's death, Brandon had the final word on any football decision he chose. The arrivals of General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone point directly to Brandon. After the Pegulas purchased the Bills, Brandon assisted in the Rex Ryan hiring process. But over the past couple years, Brandon lost any role in football operations, especially once coach Sean McDermott came aboard.
From @TylerSHPod on Twitter: Is this Russ Brandon resignation as big of a deal as I think it is? Behind the scenes, he’s been the most influential person in the franchise since 2000 (even over Ralph). This feels like a very big deal.
Graham: Brandon has been highly influential for 20 years. For better or worse, Brandon's fingerprints will be on the Bills franchise forever. How much he's missed will depend on how closely you pay attention to sports business transactions. I doubt his absence will make any appreciable difference when it comes to wins and losses for the Bills or Sabres. The Pegulas have enough money to afford free agents, arena upgrades and a new football stadium regardless of how good they are at political schmoozing, how many season tickets they sell or how many local revenue streams their executives cultivate.
Brandon's departure should encourage PSE, Bills and Sabres employees that such behavior won't stand. As one source with knowledge of the investigation told me as the news broke, employees will be "ecstatic" something finally was done about an issue considered common knowledge within the offices.
From u/Badlandsmeanie from Reddit: My question would be, how are the Bills still able to keep the fuller details of the story quiet? There has to be more to this story, but for some reason the media won't report it. How come?
Graham: Brandon has been too brazen about his relationships for complete secrecy to be realistic. We in the media, however, must be judicious in vetting every detail. And not every tawdry detail is newsworthy, despite the number of clicks it could generate.
From u/Duke_of_Earl on Reddit: My only question: Why wasn't this done sooner?
Graham: I'm unsure if the spirit of your question is about the recent allegations or Brandon's track record as an executive for teams that failed to win for a long, long time. Since I think we addressed the former throughout this Q&A, I'll treat this as the latter.
Brandon was super good at his business roles in the Bills' front office from the time he joined the club until Wilson named him GM in 2008. Wilson, still burned by his bad experience with Tom Donahoe, would rather give increased football power to a trusted-yet-inexperienced ally than to an outsider with expertise.
The Pegulas stuck with Brandon mostly because they had little choice after Marrone walked away from the club with a $4 million buyout and Bill Polian rebuffed a chance to return. The Pegulas, new as NFL owners, had nobody to lean on except Brandon and Whaley. During the search for a new coach, they sequestered themselves in Florida, and their bunker mentality forged a bond. They were in the battle together and emerged with Ryan, a flawed but high-profile hire that got folks excited. Brandon gained the Pegulas' trust. As they experienced the NFL's highly polished business approach compared to the NHL's, well, whatever the NHL does, Brandon maneuvered his way through the transition, steering the Pegulas away from a Wilson-era front office to a consolidated Bills-Sabres endeavor.
Brandon's also being named Sabres president, however, was less than three years ago. The Pegulas — as they evolved as NFL owners — eventually saw enough.