David Stern: Comparing the NBA Commissioner To The Others


Jun 27, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; NBA commissioner David Stern speaks during the 2013 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Last night I was speaking with my wife about her employer. A little ways back, the parent company fired the vice president who oversaw sales, marketing, distribution and more. The company’s sales staff got together and lobbied upper management to hire a particular person from within their industry as her replacement. The company did. The very day the new vice president started working, the entire sales staff put in their notices to join the aforementioned fired vice president at her new employer, a competitor, no less. Since then, sales have plummeted, key personnel (besides the sales force) have left, and that department has become a pretty big mess.

As a sports fan, I immediately thought of David Stern and Gary Bettman (NHL commissioner) and I figured, what the heck, I’ll do a piece on American sport commissioners: Stern, Bettman, Roger Goodell and Bud Selig.

As fans we expect the commissioner’s first duty to be to the sport. And in a perfect world, it would be. But the commissioners are paid by the owners and therefore their first duty is to those employers. My rankings are from a fan’s perspective.

King David

LeBron James may have earned the nickname King James, but it’s David Stern who has reigned supreme over the NBA for the last 30 years.  I’m pretty sure that anyone that loves and follows the NBA has taken a shot at David Stern at some point. I certainly have.

But after looking at the current state of the commissioners in American sport today, Mr. Stern is definitely the cream of this crop. Stern definitely has had the benefit of great timing, he began as commissioner just as Magic and Bird were entering the league, he was there for Michael, probably the most iconic athlete in the history of sport, and recently his good fortune has extended to the horror show that the NBPA (player’s union) has been under the tenure of Hunter/Fisher.

Of the four commissioners, Stern is the one I would place into the elite category. During his reign (make no mistake about it, his tenure has been a reign), Stern has taken a marginal sport dominated by African-Americans and grown it exponentially to an audience, the majority of which is white.

Mr. Stern’s greatest attribute may have been his ability to roll with the changes, and to take advantage of EVERY opportunity that was presented to him.

When Stern took over, football was king, baseball followed closely and the NBA and NHL followed a few rungs down the ladder. During his tenure, the NBA has become second only to the NFL in popularity, and is riding a huge wave of television money, great ratings and marketability.

Suffice it to say, over the last 30 years, the NBA has greatly benefitted from David Stern’s presence. On February 1st of next year, David Stern will be stepping down as commissioner handing his job over to Adam Silver. Mr. Silver, I’m sure, is extremely thankful for the position he’ll be left in, of all the major American sports leagues, the NBA sits in the best position going forward.

By now you’re wondering, what the heck does your wife’s employers have to do with this?

That brings me to the single greatest act ever perpetrated by a sports commissioner: the selling of Gary Bettman to the NHL. Ten years into Stern’s tenure as commissioner, the NBA and NHL were still battling for the hearts of the American sports consumer. Then it happened, Bettman, the young star of NBA administration is purloined from Stern to take over his nemesis, the NHL. What a coup for hockey. Or was it. This stinks of the sales force sabotaging their old company to benefit their new one. Stern pushed off his Ruprecht (see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, seriously, it is a true comedic classic) onto the NHL. Three useless lockouts and countless slaps to its fans and here we are. Twenty years later and the NBA is at its strongest, and the NHL, well the NHL can’t really be called a major American sport anymore. The NHL’s battles are now with English Premier League and MLS soccer for ratings.

Aug 8, 2013; New York, NY, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference at Yankee Stadium. Two outdoor regular-season NHL games will be played at Yankee Stadium during the 2013-14 season as part of the 2014 Stadium Series. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Gary “Ruprecht” Bettman

 There isn’t much more for me to say other than the above. I loved hockey, but can barely tolerate watching it any longer. Where the commissioner should be an ambassador for his sport, Bettman has been a border patrol guard treating the fans like they’re illegal immigrants trying to cross the border. Bettman is my wife’s VP, his presence hasn’t destroyed the NHL, but it has damaged it.

What’s really sad is that hockey is a great sport, filled with great athletes. With the right direction, it could regain its standing as part of the big four. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. Hockey has a new problem: concussions. And instead of learning from the NFL’s mistakes, hockey seems determined to make all of the same ones, to the detriment of both the sport and its players.

Hey look, a perfect segue into Roger Goodell and his 800 pound gorilla of a problem…

Aug 2, 2013; Canton, OH, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell prior to the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement at Fawcett Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Roger “Go For The Knees” Goodell

Roger Goodell became commissioner of the NFL while the league was atop the mountain. It still is. Sometimes it’s harder to remain on top than it is to ascend to the top. Just ask LeBron. The bigger question is whether the NFL is in a stronger place than when Goodell took over, and the answer to that is probably not. The crux of the NFL’s problems is concussions. Although the NFL and Goodell are taking their most stringent precautions ever in regards to them now, the past is ready to come home to roost.

The history of concussions in the NFL loosely mirrors that of tobacco in modern America. In the earlier days of tobacco use (mirroring the Pete Rozelle era), there was a general feeling that tobacco probably wasn’t actually good for you, and could possibly be harmful. There wasn’t any proof of this, so people kept on smoking. As a parallel, during Rozelle’s era, players would be branded tough for returning to action after a jarring hit to the head (I’m looking at you here, hockey). It didn’t seem like a good idea, but there really wasn’t any proof that it would lead to long-term problems.

The darkest era of tobacco in America came next. Conjecture became fact, the science, the studies started to accumulate. The tobacco industry did everything in its power to hide, avoid, cover up and discredit these facts. The BILLIONS of dollars in lawsuits still being paid by Big Tobacco are as much a result of deception as of the actual harmful effects of the tobacco. This era is the mirror to Paul Tagliabue’s time as commissioner. If even half of what is being reported by major news outlets is true about the NFL’s behavior regarding concussions is true, the recriminations could be scary.

And now we have the Goodell era. It’s now accepted fact that concussions can lead to brain injuries resulting in Parkinson’s disease, other dementia and suicide. The NFL is basically doing what Big Tobacco did, pretending that their past behavior wasn’t wrong and trying to have everyone look to the future. Unfortunately for the NFL, the lawsuits and suicides aren’t allowing for that. Just as tobacco has survived, I’m sure the NFL will, too. But just how much of a hit it will take both financially and in reputation will be a huge part of Roger Goodell’s legacy.

Concussions aren’t the only thing that will determine Goodell’s legacy. He is not a popular commissioner amongst the majority of players. Since most fans connect with players, his overall popularity among fans is also pretty low. There is one more issue that will be a big part of his legacy: The Washington Redskins. Not the team, the team name. I would love to give you examples of team names that would be equivalent in insult to using Redskins to describe Native Americans, but I’m afraid. I like my job, and don’t wish to lose it. Seriously, the term is so offensive that the only “acceptable” use in current society is as the team’s name. The Washington basketball team changed its name from Bullets to Wizards because of the offensiveness, but a disparaging, insulting, taboo, racist moniker is still okay? NO NO NO

Oct 28, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; MLB commissioner Bud Selig at a press conference before game four of the 2012 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Bud “What Steroids Give, Steroids Take Away” Selig

Do you remember watching baseball immediately before Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa took aim at the all-time home run record?

Neither do I.

Baseball was at a low point in fan interest right before the beginning of the steroid era. Face it, steroids saved baseball. The home run record chase captured the attention of the world. People that never liked baseball were transfixed. We watched every at bat, and ESPN made sure they cut in for each one. It was probably the most excited as a nation we’d been since the Miracle on Ice. I just don’t believe that baseball, and its commissioner weren’t aware of the cheating that was happening to give us that magic.

What did he know, and when did he know it? We’ll probably never know. But the fact is that the end of Bud Selig’s tenure as baseball’s commissioner has been focused on steroid abuse. From McGuire to Barry Bonds to Alex Rodriguez, the best of the best baseball has had to offer has been mired in this scandal. I’m not sure that 25 years from now all we remember about baseball from this era is the steroids.

I guess time will tell for Bud and his contemporaries.

As always