How Perception Of The Commissioners Shapes How We See The Leagues

Look at the photo above and ask just ask yourself which guy has it together the most.

Truthfully, they all do. These four men – Allan "Bud" Selig, David Stern, Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman – are not exactly poor. They’re paid handsomely to represent the financial interests of team owners while shepherding the operations of their leagues, including but not limited to marketing, player development, discipline and style of play. They are asked to shoulder tremendous responsibilities and act as the de-facto non-player faces of their leagues to the media, civic and business communities.

Yet, look at that photo again. You’re probably not thinking that they’re on a level playing field. In fact, if this Scribe was a betting man, it would be safe to say that your blood probably boils at the sight of at least one of them…

For whatever reason, however, these men appear to you, the sports fan, to reflect the images of the leagues they preside.

Starting with the least recognized of the four in some respects is the NHL’s Gary Bettman. Hockey fans as a whole despise him, with boos so often and loud that even Robinson Cano would eke out a home run (too soon?). There’s a laundry list of matters that deservedly shape the perception: two lockouts, the relocation of several teams to markets that have still yet to meet expectations and television deals that have changed the sport’s exposure.

Whenever he speaks about the NHL, the public sharpens the knives just a little bit more. By many, even among hockey media, Bettman’s perceived as smarmy, dismissive and condescending in his mannerisms and diction.

Yet, did you know that among the four, he’s arguably the most active in the media? That he has his own weekly radio show on Sirius/XM Radio where he takes calls and answers questions from NHL fans about all matters hockey? That he probably makes more television and radio appearances during the season than the others? Probably not because looking at him just steams you, doesn’t it?

Move over to his former boss, Mr. Stern. There’s much to be said about Stern’s stewardship of the NBA, but as the longest-tenured commissioner of the four, he’s probably earned more respect than he is given. However, there are times, as his recent faux pas with Jim Rome proved, where he gets himself in some hot water for some of the same claims as Bettman.

Stern has his unfortunate moments because compared to the other three, no commissioner in the history of sports (save for Pete Rozelle) could consider himself a lifer of a league. Stern’s the NBA’s biggest cheerleader because he is also its most staunch defender. That’s 46 years of involvement with the Association (outside counsel, general counsel and commissioner) talking, for better or worse.

So when he’s addressing the public in the media, Stern will basically remind you that he was a lawyer by parrying with the interviewers when they ask questions that might agitate him. There’s no question that this stems from the fact that he’s seen five decades of the league’s peaks and valleys.

How Stern handles crises completely differs from Bud Selig, who despite a strong affinity for his sport appears to stumble in public. To say that he has a struggle with public speaking (relative to other multimillion-dollar leaders) is to be kind. He’s certainly not a charmer, and he’s not exactly eager to curry anyone’s favor when he’s speaking in public. He seems awkward when speaking, but like a quarterback after a historic loss, he does so out of a begrudging sense of obligation. Selig’s demeanor seems to say, “It’s part of the job, and hey, how else are you going to know what we’re up to?”

Because baseball’s timelessness has countered the on-the-clock nature of other sports for generations, you’d likely believe that Selig, like the sport, is slow to modernize. And in a lot of respects, you’d be right. Saying that the appetite for instant replay is low or mentioning the Mitchell Report doesn’t endear him to those who want to see baseball grow up a bit.

So, no matter how much he has helped modernize the game – a real playoff system, expansion, new and refurbished stadiums, a spectacular advanced media division – he’ll always be considered a bit tone-deaf and out-of-touch with the fans.

All of these men seem to be far behind Roger Goodell when it comes to trust and favorable perception based on how he addresses the world. Presiding over the most popular entertainment company in the United States affords Goodell a bit more leeway when it comes to dealing with football’s greatest issues, though such slack has started to diminish slightly in the last 12 months.

Goodell speaks directly and confidently, though often, he’ll take a cue from athletes by not revealing too much in order to not let something slip. He doesn’t stammer as Selig does nor can you expect him to get into a jousting match with media like Bettman and Stern occasionally do. He’s more of a presidential candidate accepting a nomination than a long-in-the-tooth congressman who forgot his medication.

He was praised for jumping on issues that gained swift, enormous media attention such as helmet-to-helmet hits, the controversial personal conduct policy and, of course, the 2011 lockout. However, where other commissioners are immediately critiqued by fans and media who honestly live to immediately critique, Goodell’s decisions have been deeply questioned after the fact. Bountygate and the concurrent discussion of player safety have inspired more criticism, but that he’s still handling them with the same politician-like manner as when he first addressed them hasn’t inspired as much venom as there would be for the other three commissioners… yet.

Now, these may all be unfair descriptions of these commissioners as nearly all of their work takes place away from our purview. These limited scopes do shape how each league, let alone man, is perceived because we’re not in the boardrooms to fully understand what it takes to be the leader of highly competitive athletes, coaches and owners.

Yet, it’s something of note because as the major issues of sports take center stage – labor negotiations in the NHL, expanding replay in baseball, flopping in the NBA or concussion protocol in the NFL – we are looking to the commissioners to provide more than solutions. Unfortunately, this is because no matter what they’ve done for the betterment of their leagues, our perceptions of them as individuals color how we view these leagues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *