Sports | Commissioners gone wild

League leaders overstep their bounds to protect their interests

When most people think of their favourite sports league, they don’t usually think of the commissioner. They think of their favourite players or their hometown team. But the face of the business side of most leagues is the commissioner, and as the business side of sports grows, these individuals become more and more prominent. Unfortunately, the commissioners of the biggest leagues are often greedy and hypocritical, abusing the vague definition of their duties as commissioner in order to exert their will over the league. Without a set of rules to reign them in, three commissioners in particular have become tyrants in their own rights: David Stern, Gary Bettman, and, perhaps most egregiously, Roger Goodell.

Stern has been the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) since 1984. His tenure as commissioner has coincided with the massive rise in popularity of professional basketball throughout the world, and Stern has done whatever it takes to protect the NBA brand. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code in the NBA, banning players from wearing t-shirts, hats or other ‘urban’ (read: styles common among black Americans) clothing during NBA-related events. Most pegged this decision as an attempt to expand potential advertising and fan revenue.  In 2011, he and the NBA owners enacted an acrimonious lockout. Negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) were testy, with Stern telling the players that he “knew where the bodies [were] buried” in the NBA, because he himself had buried them.

This year, Stern has set his sights on eliminating flopping (simulating fouls to get free throws) under a completely arbitrary set of standards, and speeding up games by enforcing a strict time limit on pre-game handshakes between players. God forbid that the league speed up games by eliminating the absurd amount of commercial breaks in an NBA game – no, better to target pre-game handshakes, a rare moment of personality in Stern’s thoroughly corporatized NBA.

Gary Bettman, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) current commissioner, is a Stern disciple who gained control of the NHL in 1993. There may be no more reviled commissioner than Bettman; I think I’ve seen the word “fuck” before his name more often than not. Under Bettman’s reign, the NHL has gone through three work stoppages. Bettman has never been afraid to eliminate games from the schedule to get what he and the owners want from the players – more money. This year, Bettman has been particularly heinous. He has now entered a sort of bizarre doublespeak as talks with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) have broken down. Bettman has said that he is disappointed that the NHLPA won’t negotiate with the owners, even though the NHLPA offered three separate CBA proposals, which Bettman and the owners quickly rejected. Basically, he has told players that there will be no negotiations based off of anything but the NHL’s latest proposal, all while publicly criticizing the players for not negotiating.

Neither Stern nor Bettman, though, holds a candle to the reign of Roger Goodell, the National Football League’s (NFL) commissioner since 2006. Since his term as commissioner began, Goodell has exposed himself as a power-hungry, greedy, hypocritical tyrant interested in good PR and money above all else. In fact, the NFL’s short lockout in 2011 is the least of Goodell’s list of injustices.

Goodell, like Bettman in the NHL, has initiated a seemingly well-intentioned campaign against dangerous hits, all under the banner of improving “player safety.” There’s nothing wrong with policies meant to prevent players from suffering debilitating head and body injuries. Goodell’s implementation in the NFL, though, has been full of bald-faced hypocrisy. The crusade to protect the players came after a number of former players committed suicide and studies linking concussions inflicted in football to long-term brain damage were released. These reports brought increased scrutiny to the NFL and damaged the long-term viability of the league.

While campaigning for “player safety,” however, the NFL also increased the number of Thursday night games during the season, giving players less recovery time between games. These Thursday night games are cash cows for the league, as they get huge prime-time ratings. Similarly, Goodell has campaigned for an 18-game regular season, instead of the 16-game season currently in place. Never mind that the players barely make it through the regular season without suffering a litany of injuries; the opportunity for two more games, two more opportunities to reap profit, is too appealing to Goodell. In addition, Goodell went into the 2012 season refusing to budge on a labour dispute between the NFL’s referees in the league, instead hiring scab referees. These scabs had no control over the game, and further endangered the players. Only after yet another onslaught of negative press did the NFL act swiftly to bring back the professional referees.

Then there is Goodell’s spotty record of disciplinary actions in regard to both owners and players. In 2010, the league decided to play a season without a CBA, and, therefore, without a salary cap. Certain teams recognized the advantage of the uncapped year and decided to sign players to frontloaded contracts. In 2012, Goodell and the NFL decided to punish two of these teams, the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, for ‘circumventing’ salary cap rules, even though, technically, the two teams had done nothing wrong. When pressed for a reason why these two teams were being punished, the NFL claimed that there was a tacit agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association to keep player salary down during the uncapped year. If you’re scrambling for your dictionary right now, let me help you: that’s what most people would call collusion.

And, finally, there’s what the media have come to refer to as “bounty-gate.” In 2012, it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints had participated in a “bounty” program, in which defensive players were paid out of pocket by other players or coaches if they were able to injure certain players on the other team. A bounty program in and of itself is reprehensible but, the NFL’s implementation of discipline was once again spotty. The NFL severely punished the Saints, and the Saints only, despite the evidence that many other teams had bounty programs in place. In addition, several defensive players were suspended for a majority of the season. When these players appealed the suspensions, the NFL was found to have severely limited actual evidence that the players had participated in a bounty program. The suspensions were thrown out by an impartial judge, but Goodell later reaffirmed the suspensions for the players, criticizing them for not standing up to the coaches enacting the bounty program. In a sport where disobedience to coaches can often get a player kicked out of the league, this criticism is absurd.

“Bounty-gate” and the NFL’s crusade to appear conscious of “player safety” has been exposed as a farce. Perhaps no one has said it better than Scott Fujita, a player who was suspended for his supposed actions within the Saints bounty program. In a October 10th statement to the media, Fujita said: “For me, the issue of player health and safety is personal. For the league and the Commissioner, it’s about perception and liability.”

So this is what sports fans have to deal with: the most powerful people in their league have set an agenda to protect the long-term marketability and viability of the leagues, no matter how far they overstep their bounds, no matter how transparent the PR effort is. A commissioner, by definition, is the representative of the league and the owners of the franchises. In this respect, the commissioners may have done well representing the business side, but in the court of public opinion, to the fans, they can be seen as nothing more than tyrants flexing their muscles to influence the direction of the sport.

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