tom jones' two cents
More than ever, the commissioners of the four major sports are in the news. Typically, that's not good. • The NHL's Gary Bettman is presiding over yet another nasty labor dispute. Bettman's mentor, the NBA's David Stern, had a contentious labor lockout of his own just a year ago. The NFL's Roger Goodell had a player lockout last year, a ref lockout this year, and now he's waist deep in a controversy involving the Saints. • The only guy who seems to be living the good life these days is MLB commissioner Bud Selig. • Here's a look at the status of the four major sport commissioners.
Bud Selig, MLB
The biggest knock on Selig is that he is a former owner who was elected commissioner because baseball couldn't find anyone else to take the job and now all he cares about are the owners. In other words, it's all about making money for the rich owners, and there's no question he has done that with revenues reaching more than $8 billion. But, perhaps, he has done little to convince the owners that small-market teams are penalized in baseball's current economic system.
His tenure has suffered two major scars. One, a labor dispute canceled the 1994 World Series, an unforgiveable mistake according to many fans, some who never came back to the sport. The other, and even bigger wound, was the invasion of steroids. Some even suggest that baseball turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing drugs because it was still trying to recover from the aftershocks of canceling the Series.
On one hand, Selig was in charge when steroids almost ruined the game. Then again, to be fair, you have to credit him with helping baseball come out of that era with tougher testing and a much cleaner sport.
Some of his ideas have been met with a lukewarm reception. Take interleague play, which was interesting at first but eventually grew tiresome. But some of his ideas — such as adding divisions and expanding the playoffs from four teams to eight to, now, 10 — have been wildly successful.
Final analysis: The game is as popular now as it has been in years, and you have to credit Selig for much of that. Then again, you get the feeling fans will be happy to see Selig go when he is expected to retire after the 2014 season.
Roger Goodell, NFL
Considering how popular the NFL is, as well as the record-setting television deals and revenues that have topped some $9 billion, how can you possibly consider Goodell as anything but an extremely effective commissioner?
Then again, here's a great analogy once used to describe Goodell: It's like he woke up on third base. In other words, from Day 1, Goodell has had advantages that no other commissioner in sports history has ever had. The league practically prints money, no matter who is in charge.
However, Goodell seems bent on leaving a lasting impact on the game, and that goes well beyond making as much money as possible. Goodell's mission statement from the start appeared to be about cleaning up the image of the game. Here's a slogan that came about under his leadership: protecting the shield.
But some believe Goodell has abused his power as commissioner and overstepped his authority in handing down tough punishments to players who step outside the lines on and off the field. Even though the players union gave Goodell complete and full authority in the collective bargaining agreement, he has been like the hanging judge in a spaghetti western, handing out harsh punishments from the Saints Bountygate scandal to the Patriots Spygate story to individuals such as Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended even though he was never officially charged with a crime.
Final analysis: It's hard to blame Goodell for his big hammer since the union handed him that hammer. He is smug, but there's no question he puts the league above all else, and maybe that's why his league is above all others.
David Stern, NBA
There was a time when Stern was considered the hands-down, not-even-close, best commissioner in sports. And he deserved it after taking the league from relative obscurity to an international giant.
Of course, it didn't hurt to have Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson by his side to begin the league's resuscitation in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Stern deftly guided the league into international play, such as the Olympics, and made it a global sport. In fact, you could make a good case that the NBA is far more popular outside the United States than any of the other three major sports, including the NFL.
Some don't like that Stern set out to improve the image of the players, including his demands for a dress code. (Actually, some went as far as to say his demands could be seen as racist.) But there's also no question that he did spark the league's improvement in image.
He hasn't been perfect. There was last year's lockout, which produced a lousy NBA season. And a few franchises have bounced around during his reign.
* Estimated salary
Final analysis: Stern appears to be the most powerful commissioner in sports, and some of that power has gone to his head. He's coming up on 30 years as the head of the NBA, and he seems more inflexible and arrogant than ever.
Gary Bettman, NHL
Of all the commissioners, Bettman seems to be the most loathed by fans. Most, particularly those in Canada, think Bettman is the reason behind everything they don't like in hockey. Not enough hitting? Bettman's fault. Economic disparity? Blame Gary. Too many teams in the South? Gotta be the commissioner's fault. My team doesn't win? We'd be better if Bettman weren't around.
He's ruining our sport!
Meantime, the players have built a rather healthy distrust of Bettman because of past labor disputes.
Look, it's not as if he doesn't deserve some criticism. After all, the NHL is in the third lockout on Bettman's watch. Several franchises have shifted during his tenure and several more probably should because they are in such lousy financial shape. And the U.S. television contract always has been shoddy, and some believe it's a major mistake not being on ESPN.
Part of Bettman's problem is not his fault at all. He works for the most dysfunctional set of owners in sports. The majority of NHL owners can't even get along with one another, forcing Bettman to negotiate for a side that isn't unanimous in their arguments.
But part of Bettman's issues, too, stem from his arrogance, a belief that everyone else isn't quite as smart as he is.
Final analysis: In the end, he isn't as bad as his detractors think and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. While I do think he cares about the game, it might be time for some new blood. Maybe 19 years is just too long to be commissioner.