Dear Sports Czars: Take Your Ball And Go Home

Nov 13, 2012
Originally published on November 14, 2012 8:06 am

Czars.

It was fun to call American sports commissioners czars, but once players started to have unions, a commissioner really became more like a majority leader in a legislature, trying to keep his party — the owners — together in their financial battles against the minority opposition, the athletes.

Curiously, commissioners have all been in the news lately, if in different ways. David Stern announced that he'll retire in 2014 after 30 years running the NBA. Stern has been the most accomplished commissioner ever because he took the NBA from off-Broadway onto the Great White Way. Yes, it sure helped that Larry and Magic took off, then followed by Michael. You see, precisely: marquee first-name stars who just happened to have teams attached to them. But Stern knew how to milk that celebrity-first angle and, also, he knows when to leave the party.

Are you listening, Bud Selig? Stop being coy. Give us your sell-by date. So many sports bosses — czars, owners and coaches; Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, Bobby Bowden — have tarnished their achievements by overstaying their welcome; but in fact, Selig might have done his best work most recently.

Still, he's always been better at boardroom machinations than polishing the diamond. Buddy didn't see the steroids pumping up the pastime, and now he doesn't see that there are too many strikeouts sucking the action from the game. Excuse me, but a swing and a miss is just not appointment viewing.

Gary Bettman is front and center, locking out his skaters once again. The NHL commissioner, like his baseball and basketball counterparts, always has to deal with the big market/small market franchise divide, and hockey has the additional problem of its sport being indigenously beloved up north, but just an alien hard sell down south.

So Bettman has the hardest job. But he's got a good memory. The last time there was a lockout the NHL lost a whole season, but hockey fans are so famously loyal, they still came back like sheep. That's why there's no hockey now, because Bettman and the owners remembered that hockey fans are dependable suckers.

It's a good lesson for fans of all sports. If they take your game away, take your time coming back to the games.

Now, the NFL has no major financial concerns. Good grief, its dopiest small franchise, Jacksonville, sold for three-quarters of a billion dollars.

No, Roger Goodell's problem is simply that his sport has been revealed as a brain buster for his fungible gladiators. In 25 percent of Sunday's games, a quarterback was knocked out with a concussion. He talks about safety, but then Goodell ballyhoos Thursday night games for the walking wounded and he wants an extended 18-game schedule.

Ultimately, Goodell is a proprietor of a blood-and-guts show, so he has the trickiest act as commissioner. Because balance sheets are one thing, but balancing employee safety with box office is another.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We hear a lot about players, coaches and those really great guys, the owners. But commentator Frank Deford says that it is always worth checking in on the executives at the top of the sports heap.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Czars. It was fun to call American sports commissioners czars, but once players started to have unions, a commissioner really became more like a majority leader in a legislature, trying to keep his party - the owners - together in their financial battles against the minority opposition, the athletes.

Curiously, commissioners have all been in the news lately, if in different ways. David Stern announced that he'll retire in 2014 after 30 years running the NBA. Stern has been the most accomplished commissioner ever because he took the NBA from off-Broadway onto the Great White Way. Yes, it sure helped that Larry and Magic took off, then followed by Michael.

You see, precisely, marquee, first-name stars who just happened to have teams attached to them. But Stern knew how to milk that celebrity-first angle. And also he knows when to leave the party. Are you listening, Bud Selig? Stop being coy - give us your sell-by date.

So many sports bosses - czars, owners and coaches - Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, Bobby Bowden - have tarnished their achievements by overstaying their welcome. But in fact, Selig might have done his best work most recently. Still, he's always been better at boardroom machinations than polishing the diamond. But he didn't see the steroids pumping up the pastime, and now he doesn't see that there are too many strikeouts sucking the action from the game. Excuse me, but a swing and a miss is just not appointment viewing.

Gary Bettman is front and center, locking out his skaters once again. The NHL commissioner, like his baseball and basketball counterparts, always has to deal with the big market/small market franchise divide. And hockey has the additional problem of its sport being indigenously beloved up north, just an alien hard sell down south.

So Bettman has the hardest job. But he's got a good memory. The last time there was a lockout, the NHL lost the whole season. But hockey fans are so famously loyal, they still came back like sheep. That's why there's no hockey now, because Bettman and the owners remembered that hockey fans are dependable suckers.

Now, the NFL has no major financial concerns. Good grief - its dopiest small franchise, Jacksonville, sold for three-quarters of a billion dollars. No, Roger Goodell's problem is simply that his sport has been revealed as a brain buster for his fungible gladiators. In 25 percent of Sunday's games, a quarterback was knocked out with a concussion.

Goodell talks about safety but then he ballyhoos Thursday night games for the walking wounded and he wants an extended eighteen-game schedule. Ultimately Goodell is a proprietor of a blood-and-guts show, so he has the trickiest act as commissioner. Because balance sheets are one thing, but balancing employee safety with box office is quite another.

WERTHEIMER: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each week from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.