By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — People love sports. Americans love sports. To a startling degree.
It’s that obsession with sports that makes the industry so profitable and so prominent in our society. Fans fill stadiums and arenas, owners swim in pools full of gold coins, TV networks pay billions of dollars to air games so they can sell billions of dollars worth of advertisements, businesses boom simply by virtue of being adjacent to sports venues, and the players make out pretty well, too.
The leagues and the sports basically run themselves. Why, then, is it apparently so damn difficult to be a competent commissioner of a major sports league?
Is being largely terrible, mostly uncreative, incredibly stiff and painfully tone-deaf a prerequisite for the job? Or is it a symptom? It’s getting hard to tell.
This is a pressing matter nationally, of course, because Rob Manfred — apparently unsatisfied with magnificently bungling the Astros’ cheating fiasco — has appeared to be hell-bent on ruining the sport of baseball. That may not even be an exaggeration.
Manfred and MLB have done such a poor job disguising their true intentions during this “negotiation” period to restart baseball that quite literally everyone paying attention has called him out. It’s to the point where the man went from 100 percent, unequivocal confidence that baseball would return to now harboring some serious doubts on baseball being played at all this year. The only thing that happened in that five-day interim was the baseball world calling out MLB’s fake proposal for what it was: a stall tactic.
This all came after the aforementioned Astros saga, where Manfred didn’t even try to punish a single cheating player, instead offering them all immunity for honest testimony. So the whole operation got pinned on the bench coach (who left the team) and a veteran player (who had since retired). The manager and GM got fired, and even though other people in the organization were proven (thanks to The Wall Street Journal) to have been involved, nobody else was punished. The entire procedure was seemingly done to make the story go away as quickly as possible.
It has since gone away, largely due to the global pandemic. Yet every step Manfred has made since then has been embarrassing for anyone who still clings to the notion that baseball is healthy for the long term in America.
Manfred, though, is hardly the exception in the case of commissioners failing to meet even the most basic line of expectations. No, that seems to be the hallmark of most commissioners over the past 20 or even 30 years.
To be fair, Adam Silver has a clean record with the NBA. Since taking over for David Stern in 2014, he navigated the Donald Sterling scandal decisively, and he’s proven to be the rare commissioner who works for the owners while still allowing the players to hold power within the league’s structure.
Ideally, that would be the commissioner’s role — serving the interests of both the owners and the players in order to truly work toward what is best for the league’s short-term and long-term health in terms of competition, fan interest, and profitability. Instead, the modern-day sports commissioner has taken on the role of simply being the public face of the owners — willing to do their bidding and wear the criticism that goes with it, and unwilling to push back against the bosses who make him very rich.
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Gary Bettman, NHL
Bettman owns the rare distinction of being in charge for not one work stoppage, not two work stoppages, but three work stoppages. The second one cost the league an entire season. When the league returned, Bettman lost the national TV contract with ESPN, but that’s OK, because he found a new contract with … the Outdoor Life Network, a cable channel that had previously existed solely to show cycling and turkey hunting.
In his near-30-year tenure as commissioner, he’s made no progress in getting the NHL to slide up from fourth place among the major North American sports, and his mission to expand hockey into Florida, Georgia, and Arizona — at the expense of hockey-loving NHL cities in Canada — has likewise been unsuccessful. He’s also overseen the effort to prevent NHL players from participating in the Olympics, despite the massive popularity of the event when they partake.
Bettman was, for some reason, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
Rob Manfred, MLB
In his five years as commissioner, baseball has moved backward.
World Series ratings got a nice boost in 2016 thanks to the Cubs winning their first title in a million years, but the 2019 World Series garnered the lowest TV rating ever.
Manfred has imposed some pace of play initiatives that had no effect on the game, and during his tenure, a curious lack of interest has spread among the ownership as teams have seemingly pursued avenues of trying to compete without spending money.
His handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal was abominable, and his effort to make up for that with the Red Sox “investigation” — wherein he blamed only a rogue video replay room worker — was equally as bad. Soon, we’ll learn that his handling of similar allegations against the Yankees was just as shameful.
Manfred is currently at risk of losing the 2020 season, not because of the complications of the coronavirus but because he can’t convince his owners to spend some money in order to get the sport in front of Americans’ eyeballs during this time when no other sports are playing. Instead of protecting the sport, he’s protecting the billion-dollar bank accounts of the owners.
How Manfred navigates the 2021 CBA negotiation will have a long-term effect on the health or death of the sport in America. His work thus far inspires little confidence.
Roger Goodell, NFL
We’ve made it this far without getting to the worst of them all, Roger Stokoe Goodell.
He showed zero human compassion awareness after Ray Rice knocked his fiancee out cold in an elevator. He maintained maintaining zero consistency on that domestic violence policy he created to save his job (check the difference between the Josh Brown case and the Ezekial Elliott case and then wonder who’s really in charge of the league). He quietly sat back and let Colin Kaepernick shuffle out the door in an effort to let controversy fade away, only for it to blow up in his face spectacularly the following fall. He’s overseen the worst missed call in the history of sports and tried to “fix” it with a replay review solution so bad that it lasted only a year before everyone involved voted to end it. With DeflateGate, he turned what would have been the most minor infraction in the history of sports into a years-long federal case. He’s lied, and lied, and lied, and lied, hoping people wouldn’t notice or woudln’t care. He oversaw the shameful “replacement ref era.” He made the league profit off merchandise that was purportedly to raise funds for breast cancer awareness. He also oversaw the league as it collected millions of dollars from the Department of Defense for displays of paid patriotism in NFL stadiums. He ruled so poorly in the Saints’ bounty case that his predecessor had to overrule him and vacate all of the suspensions he had issued. He compared the risk of concussions in football to the risks of sitting on a couch. He and the league fought to not give money to former players with disabilities, ultimately reaching a settlement that hardly covered all costs.
He also wouldn’t let his employees eat pizza until he ate pizza, which may be the worst offense of them all.
Through it all, the NFL has generated record profits and massive attention, standing head and shoulders above the rest of America’s sports leagues as the king of the hill. That is surely happening despite Goodell, not because of him.
Ideally, a good commissioner would be able to consider all parties — owners, players, fans, media, sponsors, municipalities — and work hard to figure out solutions that serve them all the best. It’s impossible to make everybody happy all of the time, and occasionally a business decision will simply not jibe with fan or player happiness. Such is life. That being said, there’s always a balance to be struck, but today’s commissioners rarely even make the effort.
The end results are sports that prey on fans’ obsession and addictions while often treating players like disposable chess pieces. It works, one supposes, but it’s not a maximization of how great sports can be.
Perhaps it’s a naive or idealistic viewpoint to want a commissioner who tries to do more than increase profits for billionaires while having just a touch of humility. Yet it’s hard to believe there aren’t a few more Adam Silvers out there who could be doing much better jobs with their respective leagues.