It is hard to find a sports commissioner these days that fans like.
Commissioners are hired to serve the league’s owners and their interests while also acting as the face of the league to keep fans invested and interested in the product as well as its players happy and compensated fairly.
Sometimes, those goals do not always align and the balancing act becomes difficult to juggle, leading to decisions that are often second-guessed by fans, players and owners.
The commissioner is also the one who must respond to any scandal or controversies that may plague the league, which can often lead to the defining moments of one’s legacy.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has become one common issue that each commissioner of the four major sports leagues has had to respond to; with each being watched closely in how they manage to return to their seasons in a safe way.
With the spotlight so heavily focused on the jobs each commissioner is doing to keep their sports up-and-running, we take a look at how each as fared in their roles, ranking them from best to worst:
1. Adam Silver, NBA
Silver has had some big shoes to fill ever since he replaced David Stern as NBA commissioner in 2014, but he has handled just about as smoothly as one can. Just three months into his commissioner-ship, Silver was tested when a leaked audio of Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks surfaced. He set the tone of the kind of commissioner he would be by banning Sterling from the NBA for life – one of the harshest punishments a commissioner has ever given to an owner.
Beyond his handling of the Sterling controversy, Silver has followed Stern’s footsteps in growing the game globally with a significant presence in Asia and the formation of a 12-team league in Africa.
While Silver is viewed through a mostly positive lens, he still faces some significant challenges ahead that may ultimately define his legacy. Tanking remains among the biggest issues within the game that Silver is trying to navigate, and while the NBA was swift to act in shutting the league down amid the coronavirus pandemic, how the league returns will be examined under a critical eye.
2. Gary Bettman, NHL
There is a case to be made that Bettman – the longest-tenured commissioner of all four major sports – may be the most-hated commissioner among his sports’ fan base. Yet, he comes in at No. 2 behind Silver, mostly by default.
Bettman took over as NHL commissioner in 1993 with the objective to grow the game, particularly in the U.S. market, and end labor unrest. However, in his attempt to expand hockey in the U.S. he angered fans in Canada and the northern U.S. by relocating teams in those markets into non-traditional hockey markets.
The Quebec City Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes and the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars. While Minnesota and Winnipeg have since gotten NHL teams back in their markets, Bettman’s expansion into southern U.S. states has been mostly a miss, particularly with the Phoenix Coyotes and their financial troubles.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Bettman has been his failure to keep labor peace. There have been three lockouts since Bettman has taken over as commissioner and in 2004-05 the league became the first professional sports league in North America to cancel its entire season due to a labor stoppage.
But, Bettman has had successes as well: He has inked billion-dollar television deals and the creation of the Winter Classic and novelty of playing outdoor hockey games has become a popular regular season draw for fans.
3. Roger Goodell, NFL
Roger Goodell may do a good job in continuing to generate revenue for the NFL and lining the pockets of the owners he works for, but since taking the job in 2006 Goodell has wielded his power as commissioner unlike anyone else while mishandling scandals and controversy.
He became judge, jury and executioner in his efforts to “protect the shield,” as he calls it, partly due to the powers he was given in the new CBA during the 2011 lockout.
In one of the many scandals Goodell has endured, he came down hard on the New Orleans Saints during “Bountygate,” where the players involved appealed their punishment and had it overturned by Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue.
He completely botched the handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident by suspending him for two games after the league’s own internal investigation. After a video of the incident surfaced, Goodell changed the suspension to indefinite. A judge ruled Goodell could not discipline a player twice and it seemed like he was just making up the rules as he was going. The NFL has since rewritten its domestic violence policy.
Goodell’s handling of Deflategate – dragging it out for two years with appeal after appeal – seemed to indicate he was more hellbent on exerting his power rather than holding Tom Brady and the Patriots accountable.
When Colin Kaepernick began his protest against racism and injustice by kneeling for the national anthem, Goodell and the owners failed to show support for the players who chose to do so, and Kaepernick has been unable to get a job in the NFL since he started the movement. Goodell has since admitted he was wrong in his handling of the situation.
And, of course, there is Goodell’s response to head injuries and the link between CTE and football, which he has downplayed throughout his tenure and could be the one issue that impacts the future of the sport the most.
4. Rob Manfred, MLB
Up until the 2019, not much was probably thought of about Manfred, but it only took roughly six months for him to torpedo his way down below the depths of Goodell.
His first fatal mistake came back in January when the punishment for the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal was announced and the players did not face any discipline whatsoever. While players were granted immunity, many fans and other players around the league either felt that was too generous, or that the team should be stripped of its 2017 World Series title.
Manfred’s reaction to the fallout was subpar, referring to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal” and having to do a press conference to make up for the mistake in his previous press conference.
Fast forward a few months later and Manfred is once again in the crosshairs of fans and players as a contentious labor dispute broke out between the players and owners in an attempt to restart the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While Manfred is ultimately doing the owners’ bidding, he has become the fall guy and he stuck his foot in his mouth yet again, commenting that there would “100 percent” be a season only to walk that back less than a week later in what the players saw as a stall tactic in an effort to pay them for fewer games.
In addition to the sign-stealing and labor dispute, baseball has struggled under Manfred to appeal to younger and more broad audiences and his tinkering with changing the rules in an effort to speed up the pace of play has received backlash from traditionalists.
The current CBA also expires after the 2021 season, and based off the negotiations from the coronavirus, a pending lockout looms large and would be yet another blow to an already disastrous resume.
While football can survive Goodell’s shortcomings, baseball may not be able to withstand Manfred’s mistakes. The owners may stick by him in the end, but he is losing his grip on the sport with fans and players.