Who In The World Wants To Be A Pro Sports Commissioner?


Probably unexpected of any independent sports culture site, we’ve spent a fair amount of time here discussing the actions, inactions, perceptions and statuses of the sports commissioners of the four major leagues here in North America. Each article you’ve seen here since TSFJ launched provided not only opinions of what these men have done and left alone, but asked questions about said decisions.

There’s one question that seemingly no one has ever asked: Who in the world would want to be a commissioner of a professional sports league?

Within the last two months, we’ve seen these leaders have some publicly dissected egg-on-face moments. Roger Goodell’s Bountygate suspensions being overturned (by his predecessor!). David Stern’s handling of the Spurs resting players. Bud Selig having to face further criticism of the Steroid Era thanks to the BBWAA. And of course, Gary Bettman and the now-ended NHL lockout.

It seems as if these guys are firemen with three-piece suits on. They have to put out every fire sparked and even predict where the next one will start.

Though they have spearheaded positive initiatives for their leagues, these men are heavily criticized because they are the faces of the league when it comes to messy business matters, player discipline and far more from their league offices. Yes, they are all well-compensated men, and the same is true for commissioners in other pro leagues that don’t have as much of a spotlight on them (Major League Soccer’s Don Garber, for example).

What we see as the prime objective for this head honcho spot is to make money for the owners (or at least protect the money they’ve already made). However, underlying that is the need for this person to corral the varied agendas of franchise owners into a uniform directive on how a league should operate. So as we saw David Stern steer the ship for the owners in the 2011 NBA lockout, not only did he have to consider the perspectives of James Dolan, Mark Cuban and Micky Arison, but also Dan Gilbert, Paul Allen, Senator Herb Kohl and even Michael Jordan.

Then there’s what’s not so obvious until something happens. They determine how to punish wrongdoers, deal with local and national security of every person in the stadiums, balance civic pride with business interests, jump out in front of foot-in-mouth controversies, and so much more us fans and media members may not realize from the views of our couches.

Someone who is able to take on all of these responsibilities can’t be of a weak stomach and thin skin. On occasion, that someone has to tell an owner that he’s out of line. That someone has to accept that there are going to be some prominent voices in the media telling the people how awful he or she is (even if some just have an axe to grind).

Shortly after the NHL’s lockout ended, Yahoo! Sports’ Nicholas Cotsonika explained that despite the ugliness of the process and two decades of unrelenting anger from fans and media, the owners are actually pleased with the job Bettman has done … for them. This one particular paragraph spoke to the complexities of his job:

Bottom line: Bettman got a better deal for the owners than they had before, and he took the heat while they stayed in the shadows. It's awfully easy (and smart) for teams to pop up now, apologize to the public and imply they didn't like the lockout, isn't it? Bettman did his job, while Fehr did his. Now it's back to business.

And that’s what makes this job, in so many ways, unenviable. For 20 years, Bettman has taken the heat in all directions without weltering under it. Bud Selig has done it just as long as both acting and official commish. Goodell is the young lion in the group, and we know Stern, for all intents and purposes, was born in the NBA. Taking such heat isn’t something most people are built for.

It wasn’t that long ago when the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it known that she wanted to be the successor to Paul Tagliabue as her time in the Bush II Administration was ending. Her politics aside, it was interesting because a) no woman or minority has ever served as a commissioner in the four major leagues, b) she hadn’t actually worked in the league and c) the successor had sort of been decided long before as Roger Goodell moved up the ranks in the NFL.

At the time most people laughed off the idea that Rice would try to tell the late Al Davis what to do about … well, anything, I found myself actually wondering why in the hell would she want to go from fruitlessly trying to broker peace in the Middle East to trying to interpret the Tuck Rule. Being the commissioner of a pro sports league isn’t as socially important in comparison to serving in government, but there’s a reason why you don’t find openings for it on Indeed.com.

For everything afforded to those in power, there are those moments that would make any sane person wonder, “Why did I want this job again?”

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