Ditch the Commish?

From the mailbag, Matt chips in with this question:

I’m 24 years old. I’ve never been a baseball fan at all, and am only a recent hockey fan (post 2005), so this is the first major sports labor stoppage that I’ve lived through and been old enough to understand what was happening.  And I must say, I think this whole thing reflects poorly on Roger Goodell. I know that, at least to an extent, he serves as a representative of the owner’s interests, but, prior to this, it was my impression that he was to be a trustworthy voice of reason that came between players, owners, and fans.

However, I feel like he’s lying to us fans just as much as Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson have been.  I received the email that he sent out on Thursday somehow…probably because I’m on the Colts’ mailing list.  This letter actually made me angry because it made me feel I was being deceived.  And now, justified or not, I feel like he himself is threatening football for next season just as much as anyone else is.

So, my question is, where does this leave Goodell when this is all over with?  Will this cause him to be replaced as commissioner?  Can that even happen?  To what extent will fan’s displeasure with him affect whether he leaves or serves for another 30 years?

Thanks for the letter Matt, let me try and clear up some misconceptions.

Commissioners of major sports leagues work exclusively for the owners.  No matter how they try to spin their role as ‘custodians of the game’, friends of the fan, or liaisons between the owners and labor, they are beholden to one group: the owners who sign their pay checks. 

This role has developed in part because of a historical break that happened just before the baseball strike of the 90s.  The first commissioner of pro-sports (in the sense that we think of it) was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who took the job after the Black Sox scandal in 1919.  He ruled baseball with an iron fist because part of his condition for taking the job was complete unquestioned control of the game. They ONLY agreed because the sport was perceived as dirty (thanks to, you know, a giant World Series gambling scandal and all).  He lent credibility to a league that desperately needed it.  This helped create the illusion that the commissioner of a sport acted as a sort of de facto king who ruled ‘in the best interests’ of the game.  This perception was augmented by the fact that most commissioners had the power to fine/suspend owners, giving the illusion that they had MORE power than the individual team owners.

All of that came crumbling down when in baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was ‘fired’ by the owners in 1992.  In 1990 there was a lockout in spring training (WARNING: this story is about to get eerily familiar). Vincent intervened and worked for a solution that got the season rolling.  The owners never forgave him.  They wanted a work stoppage to help break the union. Vincent wanted what was in the best interests of baseball (you see where this is going).  When his contract was up, the owners refused to back Vincent, essentially forcing him to resign.  The owners did not hire a new commissioner immediately, but rather let Bud Selig, one of the owners, serve in that capacity. He was named Commissioner of Baseball in 1998.

This sent a shock-wave through sports and forever altered the way leagues viewed commissioners.  The stranglehold of the commissioner over leagues was broken forever.  Before the idea was that the owners hired a commissioner who then served like a Supreme Court judge.  He held the job as long as he wanted it and operated independently of ownership. After Vincent was given a no-confidence vote, owners realized that they controlled their commissioners, not vice versa.

The history of football is different, having only had four (including Goodell) commissioners since 1946. Pete Rozell was that old-school classic leader who everyone trusted and followed and was on the job for 29 years. He was followed by Paul Tagliabue.  He carried a lot of the same cache, and his last act as commissioner was to convince the owners to sign the 2006 CBA.  The owners now blame him for forcing them to sign a bad deal.  They vowed not to be strong armed by a commissioner again. Enter Roger Goodell.

While still maintaining the illusion that the commissioner is independent of the owners in some ways, there’s absolutely no question that he is the agent of ownership.  It is not his job to get the fairest deal. His one and only responsibility is to the men who hired him and to protect their interests.  Now, David Stern is the last of the old school commissioners.  Bud Selig is powerful, but hardly impartial. Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, essentially destroyed the league from where it was in the 1990s, but thanks to a lockout that wiped out an entire season, is now more popular with ownership than ever, despite being universally reviled by hockey fans.

This clash between the old illusion of the  ‘protector of the game’ and the modern CEO working at the behest of a powerful board creates the tension you feel.  Goodell (and Stern and others) have tried to hearken back to the cultural memory of Landis (among whose many accomplishments was preventing the integration of baseball) and set themselves up in the media as working for all parties, when in truth they only represent one side.  Goodell will only be replaced if the owners decide they don’t want him any more. Ironically, if you ever hear an interview with Stern, he’s as explicit as he can be who he works for: the owners.  While being the most ‘old-school’ in terms power, he’s the most honest about who he answers to.

In the end, fan displeasure doesn’t enter into the equation. If there are no work-stoppages, he’ll be seen as a heroic figure by fans, but that will have no effect on his tenure.  If the owners are happy (and remember they want a long work stoppage), then he’ll keep his job as long as he keeps them happy.

Is Roger Goodell a good man? I have no idea.  Does he want what’s best for football?  Yeah, probably.  But that doesn’t count for much. 

His job is to do what’s best for the owners.  In their minds, they ARE the NFL.