Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Commissioners on the Hot Seat

For the first time in a long time--maybe ever--it is better to be the commissioner of the NHL than the commissioner of the NFL, NBA or MLB. As the saying goes, no news is good news; since there is rarely news about the NHL, Gary Bettman wins in a landslide this week over Roger Goodell, David Stern and Bud Selig, who each are presiding over leagues that are experiencing various forms of turmoil.

Selig has finally come to the realization that he needs to be in attendance when Barry Bonds ties and then breaks Hank Aaron's career home run record. No word yet if Selig will clap, sit stone-faced, shrug his shoulders like he did during the infamous All-Star Game tie or perhaps hold up a pro-Aaron/anti Bonds sign. While the NBA and NFL are dealing with crises of an acute and immediate nature, MLB has a chronic, lingering problem: the cloud of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs is rapidly turning the sport's most cherished records into something that is more fictional than Grimm's Fairy Tales. Selig has no solution for this but, fortunately for him, baseball is so deeply ingrained into American society that people will keep coming to the ball parks anyway. Since Selig is incapable of cleaning up the mess that he has presided over, the best that he can do is hope that Congress, the grand jury in the Barry Bonds case or someone else emerges and does his dirty work for him.

Stern, who has deftly guided the NBA from an era when the Finals were shown on tape delay to a period of tremendous prosperity, now faces his most daunting challenge yet, one that will likely define his career--for better or worse--more than any of his numerous achievements. The announcement that referee Tim Donaghy is suspected of betting on games that he officiated, with the implication that he may have fixed those games in some fashion, has rocked the NBA to its core. The extent of Donaghy's criminal activities has yet to be fully explained by the FBI, nor do we know for sure that Donaghy acted alone, although that is the message that Stern delivered at his Tuesday press conference, with the proviso that he can only say what he knows now and that this is subject to change pending the completion of the FBI's investigation. Stern suddenly has a very long "to-do list," yet the scope of what he actually can do has clearly been limited by the FBI, at least in the immediate future. Stern certainly would like to know exactly what Donaghy did and how he did it so that the NBA can move quickly to make sure that this never happens again and, just as importantly, so that the league can confidently tell its fans that games are "decided on their merits," as Stern puts it. Yet his hands have been tied so firmly that he could not even fire Donaghy for fear of impeding the FBI's investigation. According to Stern, the whole matter has been kept under wraps to such an extent at the NBA offices that they have not yet had a chance to fully review Donaghy's conduct during the games that he officiated the past two seasons.

Stern's Tuesday press conference was painful to watch at times. Though he stood alone on stage, you could almost see and feel the presence of the FBI monitoring his every word. Stern said that he welcomes the opportunity to have the FBI thoroughly "vet"--as he described it--the NBA's officials and tried to paint a positive picture that after the "vetting" is over that we will see that all is well save for one rogue. He repeatedly praised the work of the FBI and its handling of the Donaghy case. He has discovered, as Selig did during Congress' hearings about steroids in baseball, that the federal government is one entity that does not consider a commissioner of a professional sport to be a particularly powerful individual. At least Stern has the good sense to publicly cooperate with the government and thus avoid the fiasco that happened when congressmen were dressing down Selig and union chief Donald Fehr as star players Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa disgraced themselves in various ways on Capitol Hill. You can bet, no pun intended, that Stern cannot wait until the FBI is done and he can fully reassert control over the league. If I had anything to do with the oversight of the league's officials and/or the conducting of background checks for league employees during the past two seasons, I would not feel very secure about my future job status once Stern is able to go on the warpath.

Goodell is dealing with a much more narrowly focused problem than either Selig or Stern, who both are faced with issues that affect their entire sport. Michael Vick's alleged involvement with a dogfighting operation is heinous but no other players have been implicated and Vick's actions do not directly relate to the integrity of the game itself. Goodell has ensured that Vick will not attend the Atlanta Falcons' training camp, pending an NFL investigation into this matter. Regardless of the outcome of Vick's court case, ESPN's Chris Mortensen points out that there are more than enough verifiable facts to warrant Vick's suspension for conduct detrimental to the league: Vick owns the house where the illegal activities allegedly took place and nearly 20 dead dogs were found on the property. Goodell earlier informed Vick that he would indeed be held responsible by the NFL for any improper actions that take place on property that he owns--whether or not Vick knew about said actions--so it is only a matter of time until Goodell officially suspends Vick. So far, Goodell has handled this case about as well as possible, avoiding the appearance of rushing to judgment while at the same time laying the groundwork to suspend Vick, just as he suspended Chris Henry, Adam "Pacman" Jones and Terry "Tank" Johnson for their various forms of misconduct. As I wrote after Vick was indicted, Vick's legal right to due process in no way means that he has a "right" to play in the NFL; to the contrary, the league--like any other employer in this country--has every right to suspend or fire Vick in response to the negative attention that he has brought upon his employer.

This is obviously a stressful time for all three commissioners but it is also an opportunity for each one to display leadership and to take decisive actions that will ultimately strengthen their leagues.


Fire said...

You obviously have missed out on what Bettman has done to prevent the Nashville Predators from ending up in Hamilton, OT. The guy is a jerk and has completely ruined the NHL...

David Friedman said...

I confess, I did not know about this. Most sports fans in the U.S. probably don't know about it, either, which is my point. There is no news about the NHL--even if something newsworthy happens. So, in that narrow sense, Bettman has the best job right now--which is not the same as saying that he is doing the best job; it's just that very few people are paying attention to his league or his actions, so he has a large margin of error before being subject to national criticism. I mean, I don't even want to speculate how horrible a scandal would have to happen to thrust the NHL into the national spotlight. The league has a violence problem that is as serious as any of the others and it has had its own gambling scandal (albeit not directly involving its own games, to the best of our knowledge) but those things have at best been marginal, fleeting stories on a national level.