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Bob Ryan

Owners are necessary evil in pro sports

Most good Yankees fans likely cringed when they would hear about some boorish behavior being exhibited by the late George Steinbrenner. Yet all Yankees fans knew he cared deeply about winning.Chris O’Meara/Associated Press/File


Can’t live with ’em. Surely can’t live without ’em. The sobering reality is that somebody has to sign the checks and pay the bills.

Owners are the ultimate necessary evil in professional sports. They put up the money and assume all the financial risks. The one unifying thread is personal wealth, but beyond that, they are as diverse as any other subculture of American society.

Some of them — Bill Veeck, for example — would be fun to hang out with over a beer or two. Others not only wouldn’t have a beer with you; they wouldn’t even acknowledge your presence on this earth. Some, such as Bob Kraft, are former fans who once upon a time sat in the stands and cheered on their team through thick and thin. Others got into the game strictly for financial or, which is even more typical, ego reasons, sports giving them a public notoriety they could never get in their original business, or businesses.

I do believe most owners want to win, but there are occasional exceptions. Perhaps you’ve heard of Donald T. Sterling. For most of his time as owner of the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers he was unusual, in that being branded as the Biggest Loser in the History of American Sport did not seem to faze him at all. From the time he purchased the club in 1981, his team compiled the worst won-loss record of any team in any of the four major team sports. He acquired a completely accurate reputation as the cheapest of the cheap. He would not pay a decent salary for a top-notch coach. Elgin Baylor spent 22 years as the lowest-paid general manager in the NBA. Sterling would not pay the going rate for any good player who was eligible for free agency. For years, they all walked.


Donald T. Sterling didn’t care. He was happy as long as he made a profit and as long as he had a team in Los Angeles. It seemed logical to those in the outside world for him to have moved his team to Orange County, where he would have had a market all to himself. But, nooo. He wanted a team in Los Angeles, even if it meant playing in the antiquated Sports Arena or becoming a third-choice tenant (behind the Lakers and Kings) in the Staples Center when it opened in 1999. He had his center-court seat, and his photographer on hand nightly, and by God, he was going to welcome his B-list, J-list, or Z-list celebrities to the game to watch his team, Donald T. Sterling’s team, play in his city, and never mind this Orange County nonsense.


At no point until the past two years, when he approached his 80s, did winning appear to be more than a peripheral concern. And the loyal Clippers fans knew it. They loved NBA basketball, and if their motivation was not to expect seeing a competitive team, but rather to see the stars on all the other teams, well, then, it was a unique owner/fan compact that would not have worked in many other markets. The summation is that by all normal standards, Donald T. Sterling was, and is, a horrible owner, even if he had nothing but the most noble and enlightened thoughts on race relations in America.


Some owners have stirred violent passions. Perhaps the most reviled owner in American sports history is Walter O’Malley, who in the eyes of Brooklyn residents committed high treason by moving the beloved Dodgers to Los Angeles following the 1957 season, compounding the felony by persuading New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham to go westward with him. People have died cursing Walter O’Malley with their final utterance. When Neil Diamond sang “Sweet Caroline” live at Fenway, he wore a shirt with the wording “Keep The Dodgers In Brooklyn.”

Oh, but guess what? Now we learn there is sufficient scholarship work out there to prove that the real villain of the scenario was not O’Malley, but the imperial czar of all New York development Robert Moses, who would not allow O’Malley to build the stadium he desperately needed in the borough of Brooklyn.

In recent times we have more legitimate ownership punching bags named (Robert) Irsay and (Art) Modell, the former being a reviled figure in Baltimore and the latter a similarly despised person in Cleveland. There are no Robert Moses figures in their stories to cloud the issues. These men must answer in the eternal Court of Public Opinion for what they did.

But some owners are nothing less than beloved. I’m entering my 50th year in Boston and I have yet to hear a bad word about Walter Brown. Here was a hockey man, through and through. He was one of several hockey owners who created the Basketball Association of America in 1946 in order to fill dates in building on nights when there was no hockey, boxing, or indoor track. He didn’t know, as they say, whether the ball was blown up or stuffed. Brown fell in love with his basketball team and proved himself to be the best kind of paternal owner, once even mortgaging his home in order to come up with the money for playoff shares. I can’t quite envision Donald T. Sterling doing that.


The NBA in those days actually had owner-coaches such as Eddie Gottlieb in Philadelphia and Lester Harrison in Rochester. That’s right, owner-coaches, not owner-GMs such as Jerry Jones is today. Nobody could accuse those guys of not trying to win, and each, in fact, did win a title, Gottlieb in 1947 and Harrison four years later.

What fans want is an owner who is dedicated to winning, and if they must put up with some offensive public behavior, they can live with it. I’m wagering that most good Yankees fans cringed when they would hear about some boorish behavior being exhibited by the late George Steinbrenner. It was a universal feeling that you wouldn’t want to work for him. He was hard to root for as a person. Yet all Yankees fans knew he cared deeply about winning and annually spared no expense in his pursuit of victory. And the Steinbrenner Yankees quite often delivered the goods.

I am guessing most Washington Redskins fans are not proud to be rooting for a team owned by Daniel Snyder, a bull-in-the-china-shop sort who is not exactly handling this situation concerning the team nickname with appropriate aplomb. They have to know he desperately wants to win. The problem is he hasn’t come close to doing so, and if the fans had a vote he would have been sent away years ago. Winning cures a lot of ownership ills.


We can only hope that people who have lucked into good owners appreciate their rare good fortune. Do the people of San Antonio even know who owns the team? His name is Peter Holt. The Spurs are the model NBA franchise, but you never hear about Holt. Do the people in Tampa and St. Petersburg know how lucky they are to have Stuart Sternberg in charge of their baseball team? Based on attendance and general interest, I’d say probably not. The Rays are the best-run franchise in baseball. Mr. Sternberg’s efforts are being wasted in front of an unappreciative constituency.

What about us?

Truth is, it’s almost sinful. We have had eight parades involving the four major team sports since the 2001 Patriots got it rolling with their first Super Bowl. We at one time had a standing coach or manager who had won a championship in place simultaneously, something that has never before happened in North American sports history. It’s conceivable this century will end without that happening again. I’m not nominating any of the individuals for sainthood, but it’s pretty clear that we are the most envied sports locale in America. Our four ownership groups have proven themselves to be both caring and competent.

Just don’t get cocky. It’s not like we got to vote on these people. We have lucked out, pure and simple. There might be a market correction someday. There might be a Sterling or Snyder in our future.

These are the Good Old Days. Lucky us.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.