Trouble at the top
"If I were a sports commissioner for a day …'' At one time or another, every avid sports fans starts a sentence that way to kick off one of the great bar-stool conversations. But these days, the sentence might end with "… I’d quit.'' All four of the major sports league commissioners in North America are in the midst of controversies and hard times. Here's a look at the messes they are in and how to get out of them:
David Stern, NBA
The mess: Stern rules the NBA with a, well, stern fist. His league seemingly was on cruise control and Stern had became the Teflon Commish. Riding the wave of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Stern took a league few cared about to heights it had never known and is considered the best commissioner in sports. Even the infamous brawl in Detroit and the league's "thug'' reputation could not slow the sport's popularity, and Stern received (deservedly so) much of the credit. But the league’s reputation changed dramatically last week when word came out that one of its referees, veteran Tim Donaghy, is believed to have bet on games he officiated. In a word, this is disastrous. It's the type of thing that can destroy a league because it cuts to the heart of sports' most basic mantra — that the outcomes are legitimate.
How to get out of the mess: Stern addressed the topic immediately, but not necessarily head-on. Two troubling statements came out of his first public comments. One was he said he believed Donaghy was a "rogue, isolated criminal.'' That very well may be true. But by immediately dismissing this controversy by saying Donaghy was an isolated case, Stern seemed to be taking an ostrich approach, arrogantly all but refusing to believe this could extend to other referees. That's not what fans want to hear, and it might not even be true. Stern needs to assure fans that the league will do a thorough investigation of every referee. Because, sadly, every referee in the league will now come under question from fans whenever a bad call is made. The other thing is Stern never really apologized to the fans. He needs to do that immediately. Even still, this is a crisis that could stain the NBA for a few years no matter how Stern handles it.
Bud Selig, Major League Baseball
The mess: Who's to blame for the steroid problem that has plagued baseball for years? Well, it's hard to point the finger at commissioner Bud Selig, but let's face it: All this mess has come under Selig's watch. It's easy now to second-guess him, suggesting he should’ve demanded testing years ago when it was apparent players were getting really big really fast and baseballs were zooming out of ballparks at record rates. And now, as baseball's most hallowed record is broken, Selig is faced with having to help celebrate it by congratulating Barry Bonds in person. Poor Bud. He wasn't well-liked or respected by fans to begin with, and now it just gets worse.
How to get out of the mess: Really, all Selig can do is weather the storm. He was faced with a darn-if-I-do, darn-if-I-don’t decision. If he chose to stay away from Bonds, it was as if he were admitting that he believes Bonds has cheated and had never done anything about it. If he chose to attend, it could have been seen as turning a blind eye to someone many people feel is an obvious cheater. He has probably made the right call by following Bonds' chase in person and it's doubtful he will go overboard with his enthusiasm. His response is expected to be congratulatory but reserved. That’s the best he can do. Eventually, all this Bonds stuff will shake itself out and, in the end, Selig will just be a supporting character in this drama.
Roger Goodell, NFL
The mess: Pete Rozelle invented the modern-day NFL with Super Bowl Sundays and Monday Night Football and so forth. Paul Tagliabue took Rozelle's sturdy foundation and then led football past baseball as America's favorite sport. Then along comes Roger Goodell and not even a year into his reign, he is besieged by issues. From millions of Cincinnati Bengals being arrested to "Pacman'' Jones to the biggest problem of all, Michael Vick. The Falcons quarterback is one of the league's marquee players, but now the feds believe he was running a horrifying dogfighting ring.
How to get out of the mess: Because the accusations about Vick are so heinous, people are outraged and demanding his immediate suspension from the league. But Goodell has to be careful about setting a precedent here. He can't go suspending players every time they are arrested but before they are found guilty in a court of law. Yet, what a public relations nightmare it would be to have Vick playing and then discover he is guilty of what he is charged with. And, already, Vick has been convicted in the court of public opinion. Goodell really has no choice but to sit back and let the legal process play out. While the public would love for him to suspend Vick, what would happen if he did so and it turned out Vick was found not guilty? The best he can hope is either the Falcons or Vick himself decides he needs a leave to deal with his legal issues. Maybe Goodell can have a "chat'' with Vick to, uh, suggest how that would be a good move for Vick's long-term future in the NFL.
Gary Bettman, NHL
The mess: While the other commissioners are dealing with temporary issues that will eventually pass, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman faces a much larger problem, perhaps the most serious problem a sport can face. His league has become irrelevant. Sure, the sport still matters in Canada, but not in the United States, where 24 of the league's 30 teams play. Television numbers are embarrassingly low, and more and more major newspapers are scaling way back on NHL coverage simply because their readers don't care. The league was in danger of fading away even before a labor dispute wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Worst of all, the league squandered its chance to take full advantage of, perhaps, the two greatest players in league history in Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Both are retired and the league couldn't ride the wave like the NBA did with Jordan, Magic and Bird.
How to get out of the mess: There are too many teams, the schedule is a mess and the players still aren't marketed well. But the first thing Bettman can do is get the NHL back on ESPN. Nothing against Versus, but this league needs the backing of the country's No. 1 sports station. That should be his lone priority. Then he can deal with maybe contraction, fixing the schedule and marketing players. And this might seem drastic, but as he navigates through the next few years, Bettman needs to ignore how Canadian owners want to do things. If this league is to be taken off life support and become a league that matters again, everything Bettman does must be in the best interest of American fans, teams and owners. I understand how insulting that is to Canada, where hockey is like religion. But if this league isn't fixed now, the only place where it will be played is in Canada and that's bad for everyone, including Canadians.