By definition, reputation and title, the commissioner holds the most power in the game. So it came as a shock when David Stern was undressed by a player -- better known as the moment when Dwyane Wade stole the emperor’s clothes.
“Don’t point your finger at me!” Wade screamed at Stern, and according to those in the room at last year’s NBA labor showdown, the place became so silent, you could hear jaws drop. “I’m not a child.”
If that was a single sensationalized incident, then OK, things happen, even to those who rule. But we see that it wasn’t. We see lots of accusatory fingers aimed right now at commissioners in the NBA, NFL and NHL mostly, their weary eyes poked by fans, media and players. They’re under siege collectively like never before.
Their jobs are coveted, financially rewarding, definitely challenging and in the last two or three years, you could add: thankless. These are smart men who didn’t get here by accident. But they’re running the risk of being depicted, fairly or not, as bumblers who aren’t enhancing the game, only the pockets of the owners.
When exactly did the sports commissioner become a public pin cushion? Maybe it comes with the territory in a sense, but wasn’t that territory once considered sacred? He’s lampooned in the press, booed by fans and busy watching his authority questioned with increasing regularity by players. His intentions are good, but his methods aren’t always well-received. He still holds the highest office, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s still held in high esteem when every week brings someone else taking a shot at him or his policies.
Much of the dissatisfaction, both real and perceived, toward Stern, Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman is rooted in labor fights. They become fronts for ownership, and since the only time you can find an owner is when he’s accepting the trophy or lobbying for a new stadium, the commish is easy prey. That’s why Bud Selig is enjoying, for the most part, a stretch of serenity. About a decade ago, his seat was in flames, but now the steroid issue is a bit more under control. Selig is out of the news and therefore out of the line of fire for a change. The other commissioners would love to spend their time weighing whether a drug-cheat should be eligible for a batting title, the only heavy-lifting Selig’s had to do lately.
But it’s more than labor. It’s bounties, dress codes, rule changes, replacement referees, age limits, health issues, player compensation, franchise relocations, personal conduct enforcement and accusations of bullying tactics. It’s the overall impression that the commissioner isn’t doing everything in his considerable power to please everyone. Which, of course, he can’t.
He can only act in the best interest of his sport. That’s all Goodell did when he sacked the Saints for what the league saw as a calculated campaign to injure players. For that, Goodell is a despised man in New Orleans, the angry home to a winless football team and a place where he’d be advised to bring taste-testers if he plans to eat out next February when the Super Bowl comes to town.
“Nobody trusts him,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, and clearly, there’s a disconnect between Goodell and the players when it comes to his authority and their desire for due process.
At least the bounty hate is limited to one small corner of the league. Not so when it comes to the state of the referees. Even though he’s acting on behalf of owners, Goodell is getting woodshedded for the handling of the contract negotiations with the full-time officials. This past weekend in the NFL, and especially Monday night in Seattle, Goodell watched his league turn into a cruel joke. While games are being comically officiated and players and coaches lose patience and tempers, a multi-billion-dollar corporation is holding firm to giving pension raises to referees. It seems petty. The players’ union even slammed Goodell for jeopardizing “player health and safety and the integrity of the game.”
And that raises another issue clouding Goodell’s reign: player safety. He has issued stiffer punishment for helmet-to-helmet hits and putting protectors in for quarterbacks and receivers. Goodell is concerned enough about concussions that he’s gone to significant lengths to limit violence, to the point where he’s been accused of Disneyfying the game. He should be applauded, right? Well, the league is facing a lawsuit from retired players and still sees scattered incidents of spearing by defenders going for the big hit. And the clear disrespect the players have for the replacement refs hasn’t helped; fights are breaking out everywhere.
Bettman has been a polarizing presence for two decades in the NHL, his name never failing to register a reaction within the hockey world. With hockey currently on hold due to a lockout, Bettman’s image among fans is taking another hit. How can hockey ever gain traction, from a visibility standpoint, when there’s no hockey? He once yanked an entire season because of labor strife. His status is particularly volatile north of the border, where Bettman is viewed by some as an ex-basketball executive chained to New York. How many commissioners are booed at the happiest time of the year, in the middle of a celebration, as Bettman was during the Stanley Cup ceremony?
And yet, Bettman made necessary decisions to keep the league financially afloat. When he took over in 1993, revenues were $400 million and franchises teetered. Now those revenues might reach $3 billion. The NHL owns a 10-year, $2 billion TV deal and increased sponsorship; a decade ago the league was hurting for both. By locking out the players, Bettman (actually, the owners) is once again drawing the financial line and acting on the game’s best interests. And he did help steer the Jets back to Winnipeg, thereby dispelling the perception, at least momentarily, that he doesn’t care if hockey in Canada drops dead.
Having recently turned 70, Stern said he won’t stick around for the next labor negotiation in the NBA, and years ago that would’ve been met with damp eyes. Not so much now. His base eroded not only from the lockout, but the awkward way he handled the New Orleans Hornets while the team searched for new ownership. Suddenly, everything Stern did was somehow tied to some sort of conspiracy, a perception that’s dogged him ever since he was accused of conducting a rigged draft lottery for the Knicks and Patrick Ewing.
Quickly forgotten is that the growth under Stern’s command was staggering. Stern helped multiply the value of franchises, the league has expanded in number and popularity since he took over three decades ago, and now is a global Goliath, selling merchandise by the millions. Which means the owners are happy.
A fair number of players, meanwhile, believe he’s a bully and out of touch, a hopelessly old-school commissioner. When Stern floated the idea of limiting the age of players on Team USA to 23 and under in future Olympics, Kobe Bryant called it “stupid” and “dumb.” The treatment Stern gets from today’s great players isn’t the cozy relationship he enjoyed with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. And judging from the negative response he gets virally from fans, Stern might be overstaying his welcome with them, too.
But it’s not so bad, being a lord, having your name stamped on the ball, with the power to control a sport followed passionately by millions. They sleep well at night, drowning any sorrows on satin sheets. And the people who keep them on the job are owners, meaning the commissioners only need to satisfy one group to remain employed. They never forget the golden rule: He who has the gold, rules.
But the cost of doing business sometimes runs the risk of having poor public and player relations. This is the challenge facing Selig, Bettman, Stern and Goodell, four power brokers finding it difficult to uphold both the game and their approval rating. Maybe that’s no longer possible in a sports world where owners, players and fans bring different agendas, and good luck to the appointed king who must juggle those chainsaws.
There isn’t anyone who doesn’t respect the office of the commissioner, even now. But what do you make of the man inside?