If it wasn’t apparent before, it’s become clearer in recent days that well-considered guidance will be required in abundance, as professional sports teams consider how to proceed once the worst of the COVID-19 virus is safely behind us.
It seems absurd that Major League Baseball is talking about resuming play as soon as May in Arizona — but then you consider MLB’s uninspiring leadership, with Rob Manfred atop the masthead, and the tone-deaf let’s-get-back-to-business-already approach makes sense. MLB is going to mess this up, and Manfred will be at the forefront of the blunder.
As for the other leagues, the NBA is the only one trusted to do the right thing, whatever that happens to be, largely because Adam Silver is the most competent and compassionate commissioner in sports. It’s not close, really. He’ll be worthy of our trust when sports return and normalcy begins to be restored.
The other commissioners? Well, they might be better off seeking guidance rather than providing it, not that their egos would allow for it. For the sport of it — and perhaps as a warning not to expect too much from them in the coming months — here’s how I’d rank the commissioners, best to worst:
1. Adam Silver, NBA
Yes, the infamous China situation was a mess, one that made some of the NBA’s most prominent faces look hypocritical. But I don’t know anyone who could have realistically handled it better than Silver did. He publicly backed Daryl Morey’s right to free speech after the Rockets general manager tweeted his support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in October 2019. That may have seemed the easy thing to do, but it was complicated. China — a crucial partner in the quest to grow the NBA’s reach — pressured Silver to fire Morey. Silver did the right thing. Given the millions — if not billions — of dollars at stake, many would not have, including probably every other one of the commissioners mentioned in this piece. But Silver, who followed mentor David Stern as commissioner in 2014, has a knack for doing the right thing, most notably when he eradicated Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league that same year. He must have a ruthless side somewhere — he had to have some edge to earn Stern’s respect — but it’s telling that the players like and trust him, and he genuinely seems to love the sport. Among commissioners, Silver is easily the gold standard.
2. Gary Bettman, NHL
I’ve heard some soul-rattling booing at assorted sporting events in my day, the kind that might make the target reconsider his life choices on the spot. Roger Goodell probably hears boos when he puts his head on his giant NFL shield pillow at night. Old boos aimed at Alex Rodriguez still ricochet around the catacombs of Fenway Park. But I’ve never heard anyone booed as loudly as Bettman was when he was presenting the Stanley Cup to the Bruins in Vancouver after Game 7 in 2011. And that wasn’t a one-off, either; Bettman is booed relentlessly whenever he makes a public appearance. I’d say he deserves, oh, 89 percent of the wrath he receives; the league has endured three work stoppages since he became commissioner in 1993, including an unforgivable lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. He’s also tilted the league away from its Canadian heritage. The NHL has added seven franchises on his watch, in such places as Phoenix and Las Vegas (a huge success, actually), while Canada has just seven teams. Yeah, that’ll get you booed with the heat of a million glowing Fox Sports pucks north of the border. The league, however, is healthy 27 years into his tenure, and its playoff setup remains the best in sports. Boo him if you wish, and he is a huge dropoff from Silver on this list, but he’s not the worst.
3. Rob Manfred, MLB
Manfred’s origin story tells us that he grew up a fan of the Yankees, but I’m not convinced he actually likes the sport. He’s been the commissioner of baseball since January 2015. Can you name one thing he’s done that suggests the game — rather than the next quarterly financial report — actually matters to him? I’m not one for Bud Selig nostalgia — he’s the fundamental reason we shamefully went without a World Series in 1994 — but at least the sport mattered deeply to him, and he could relate to the passion of the fans. Baseball has its flaws — the games are way too long, and the important ones start too late — but Manfred exacerbates those flaws by constantly reminding us of them with non-traditional, quasi-solutions that make everything worse, such as the idea that extra-inning games should start with a runner on second base. And he’s getting bolder in revealing his utter lack of sentiment about what makes baseball part of America’s fabric. His desire to eliminate 42 minor league teams would cut viciously at the roots of the game, irreparably damaging it in the small towns that savor the sport and their team but aren’t major league cities. Yeah, I believe he rooted for the Yankees. Not because he liked baseball. Because they usually had the most money.
4. Every other commissioner
Every other commissioner in every other sports league in North America, including that stunted meathead that runs your kid’s Little League and somehow always stacks his own kid’s team with the seven best players.
5. Roger Goodell, NFL
Fun fact: When Goodell was named as Paul Tagliabue’s successor in August 2006, it required five ballots among league owners before he was selected. The other candidate was Gregg Levy, a lawyer who had been the league’s outside counsel, a path Tagliabue had taken to the commissionership. Looking back, one has to wonder how the last 14 years in NFL history might have been different had he beaten out Goodell — who acts like a lawyer, judge, and jury but whose background is in public relations — for the post. And Levy must wonder, whenever Goodell bollixes something, how he lost out to that dunce. Goodell has done his job competently in some ways; he was crucial in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement in 2011; he has helped negotiate billions of dollars’ worth of television rights deals; and he’s an expert at pandering to the league’s most powerful owners, which at least has served him well. But looking at his record beyond the financial windfall that coincides with his tenure, it’s remarkable how many mistakes he has made that suggest he’s not just a lousy commissioner, but he’s rather inept at PR, as well. Tagliabue had to clean up his Bountygate mess. The Ray Rice punishment was an embarrassment to the league that he eventually had to rectify. The league constantly downplayed the effects of concussions even as its players kept dying before they were old men. And it was Goodell who turned Spygate from a misdemeanor at worst into something that was treated like the NFL crime of the century. The NFL thrives in spite of him. Imagine how much better it would be with someone like Silver in charge. Or. more probable than not, Gregg Levy.