He cannot pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but at some point over the past 18 months Sashi Brown came to peace with his departure from the Cleveland Browns. It did not happen immediately. In December 2017, he believed the two years he spent in charge of Cleveland’s football operations — two seasons of on-field misery — had positioned the franchise for many more years of triumph ahead. And then, in his view, he learned he would have to watch someone else benefit from that work. He’s over it now.
“Whenever you invest that much time into something, and you get to a point where you feel like you’ve got it right where you want it, and you’re ready to go — which was about the point where I was let go — then, yeah, you’re going to have those feelings,” Brown said. “We’re all human. That’s a big part of what you have to recognize about yourself and be aware of. It was a good time to be able to decompress. I think you naturally need that. You lean on people who are supportive, family being number one."
Brown reemerged Monday afternoon, sitting on a stool at the left end of a small stage at Capital One Arena. He was, at least for the moment, no longer a flash point in the discussion of how modern sports franchises operate. He wasn’t even a football executive. He was Monumental Basketball’s chief planning and operations officer, a crucial piece of managing partner Ted Leonsis’s sweeping restructuring of the Washington Wizards.
Brown, 43, will bring one of the more controversial résumés, impressive diplomas and atypical backgrounds of any executive in professional sports. He is most famous for his previous job, when he built Browns teams that went 1-31 over two seasons while accruing a war chest of draft picks and salary cap space — which his successor, John Dorsey, has used to create perhaps the buzziest team in the NFL.
After graduating from Hampton and then Harvard Law, Brown worked at Washington law firm WilmerHale. He had a passion for sports, and he joined the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005 as general counsel, eventually becoming a senior vice president who oversaw salary negotiations. The Browns hired him in the same role in 2013, and in 2016 owner Jimmy Haslam tapped him to run the football side.
The Browns fired him in December 2017, with his record standing at 1-27. Since then Brown has maintained a low profile, quietly consulting for teams (which ones, he won’t say) and, in his words, “rediscovering my fatherhood.” His kids are 3, 6 and 7 years old, his youngest born just after he took the football operations reins in Cleveland.
“It’s been a really healthy, good 18 months,” Brown said.
Brown turned down offers to work for other teams, he said, before Leonsis contacted him in May on the advice of consultant Mike Forde. Brown saw the meeting as an exchange of ideas, a chance to meet someone who wanted to pick his brain. Leonsis quickly saw Brown as something more.
“Who are iconoclasts who are really, really smart people?” Leonsis said. “Who has different skill sets? He’s a lawyer, although he doesn’t like to admit that he’s a lawyer.”
In his role, Brown said he will determine how to best “bring all our resources together.” He plans to be not a decision-maker but a “sounding board” for General Manager Tommy Sheppard. In Cleveland, Brown leaned on Browns executive Paul DePodesta, a former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager.
“As much as you want to think you understand what it’s like to sit in that chair, you don’t until you do,” Brown said. "So that was a fantastic experience.”
As Brown joins the Wizards, his dizzying tenure leading the Browns is still being litigated. To some, he is a football martyr who collected assets through calculated failure before the owner fired him and allowed someone else to come along and profit from the winnings he collected — the NFL’s answer to former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie. To others, he was an outsider who proved woefully out of his depth while running the Browns’ football operations into the ground.
The truth is somewhere in between. One former Browns executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he endorsed Brown’s unconventional approach and credited his strategic thinking. Brown, for example, landed a second-round draft pick in a trade for Brock Osweiler, a salary-dump move that had been foreign to the NFL. But the executive stopped short of granting the kind of credit he believes Hinkie deserves for setting up Philadelphia’s NBA success.
“It’s a convenient story,” the person said. “It just doesn’t hold up very well.”
The key difference, the person explained, is how many resources NBA and NFL teams receive as a team-building base. Accruing assets in the NBA is a far greater challenge. Teams receive just two draft picks each year, and the vast majority carry marginal value. Drafting a star player takes a wicked combination of luck and skill, and acquiring stars is essential to championship pursuit. Small improvement down the roster is possible, but it doesn’t move the needle for title aspirations.
So the lessons Brown tried to apply to the NFL didn’t hold up. Rosters churn constantly, making players readily available and giving executives countless chances to improve at the margins. Acquiring draft capital is easy, and even third- and fourth-round picks have value. The 76ers needed to hit extreme depths for Hinkie’s tank to “work.” The Browns could have accomplished the same asset collection while still winning five or six games a season, without alienating the fan base and posting embarrassing results.
“In the NFL, it is not the same model,” the executive said. “You don’t have to be terrible to make a ton of decisions that will give you an advantage. You don’t need a top-five pick, just top-15. You don’t need to carve cap space. Every team can generate a lot of cap space. In this NFL, there’s really not enough players to spend the money on — the cap just goes up and up.”
Brown’s tenure in Cleveland is likely to be debated into the fall, and probably longer. But he has gotten a fresh start with a new team in a new sport, and he is at peace with how he moved on.
“I think I have a strong will,” Brown said. “To keep proper perspective is critically important. These are privileges, not something everyone gets a chance to do. I was extremely lucky to even have the time that I did.”