Right field: A power play we can do without

NHL lockout is latest example of how the commissioners who run North American sports are detached from passionate fans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 2:36am

He is a short man whose posture belies his height. In public, his head tilts back while his jaw thrusts forward in a particularly smug and imperious manner. Napoleonic is the word that immediately comes to mind. But even the raging egomaniac Napoleon had nothing on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his fellow sporting czars.

Over the past year the NBA's David Stern, the NFL's Roger Goodell and Bettman have all shut down their respective leagues and they did it for one reason: because they could. Eventually the NFL settled with the players without missing a game, while the NBA began last Christmas Day with a truncated schedule. And now it's Bettman's turn to close the NHL down again for the third time since he took the job in 1993. Of course, the fans are the big losers here. But the real losers, the ones whose survival is imperilled, are the thousands of people who work in and around the game and are now unemployed at a time when jobs are basically non-existent.

The sporting bosses' complete lack of accountability makes me sick to my stomach. It is such an outrage and, sadly, such a helpless feeling that all you can do is scream. And you know what, neither Bettman, Stern nor Goodell care one iota what we think, because shutting down a league is the ultimate scorched-earth policy. But how can the ability to do that rest with one man?

Ironically, baseball has easily been the most contentious North American sport for labour relations over the past 40 years. And yet the last work stoppage they had was in 1994 and with a labour contract in place until 2016, they are set for smooth sailing. Not surprisingly, the game has never been more popular.

The commissioner is in the employ of the owners and, as such, his primary job is to make them more money. Still, that does not stop them from feeding us a load of pious tripe about how they want to do the right thing for the fans. They tell us to take passion out of the equation for a moment and look at the finances and the bottom line. But if we took passion out of the equation then we wouldn't be fans.

Stern is the acknowledged gold standard of the commissioner as God. He took a forlorn league and turned it into a multi-billion-dollar industry and because of that he is beyond reproach and fully aware of it. It seems that arrogance is not so much an occupational hazard as it is an occupational imperative. Most of the people who Stern works for actually have no idea how much money they are paying him. Apparently, only three owners know how much he pays himself.

Goodell tries to be a white knight but has been on his own power trip in the past few years. So arrogant was he that he started this season with replacement referees because of a battle over a few thousand dollars in salary with regular refs. The NFL had over US$10 billion in revenues last year and yet they used a number of officials who were not even capable of calling a high school game. Of course, the results were downright disastrous and Goodell eventually capitulated. And Bettman has restructured management's constitution so he now needs only eight of 30 owners' approval to veto or agree to any-collective bargaining offer from the players. You have to love those odds.

Perhaps you feel, and maybe rightfully so, that Goldman Sachs is a repugnant and odious company. But you are still more than happy to have them handle your savings because they can make lots more money for you. This is kind of where we are with sports. You hate Stern, Goodell and Bettman but you love the game so you watch in spite of how they run their leagues.

But there is one big difference. If you don't like what Goldman Sachs does you are free to withdraw your money. If you don't like what the commissioners are doing to the game, well, tough. Of course, you are free to not watch but if you are a fan of the game that kind of defeats the purpose. Think about the impunity, the arrogance and the callousness of Messrs Stern, Goodell and Bettman and what it does to the fans. Then you think about all the times you have wondered why the sports media can be so cynical and negative. Well, it's no mystery to me. These guys take your passion and hold it in their hands until they have squeezed every cent out of it. And when they don't squeeze enough money out of your passion then they shut it down until they do.