Dictionary.com defines this word as "an official chosen by an athletic association to exercise broad administrative or judicial authority". This is important considering what has recently happened in the NFL and NBA and the PR nightmares that have ensued. These men despite being glorified corporate CEO's according to many have been specifically chosen to exercise "broad administrative or judicial authority", and the recent examples from two leagues have shown just how far this definition has been warped and changed over time. Now as Roger Goodell picks up the pieces from his latest PR nightmare, and Adam Silver continues a Spanish Inquisition against racism from the owners he serves, what is the definition of "commissioner" now anyway?
This line of questioning was inspired by a recent Keith Olbermann essay on commissioners, connecting not only to Roger Goodell but also the rumored NHL expansion. Olbermann noted what was said above: that commissioners aren't really commissioners anymore, but corporate CEO's charged with growing their business as much as they can. He simply wants the name to be changed to reflect the new role of a commissioner in today's sports world. This is true, as was his assertion that the original "commissioner" Kennesaw Mt. Landis of baseball was far more wide-reaching in his role back in the 1930's, but the world was wholeheartedly different then. It's wholeheartedly different than it was 10 years ago too. As with everything, the commissioner's role has evolved and it's not a purely sports role anymore. It wasn't with Pete Rozelle when he desperately tried during the 1960's to grow the NFL while competing against the AFL and baseball at the same time. So it's not all about sports anymore, and commissioners now are technically employed by the owners they serve. Except...
Adam Silver in his tenure as NBA head honcho successfully pushed out Donald Sterling thanks to TMZ leaking his disgusting racism in a private conversation (odd how TMZ is the sports moral compass right now *downs gallon of bleach*), and will soon get a second feather in that cap. Harvey Levenson, one of the Hawks controlling partners, self-revealed a racist e-mail he sent to his teams' brass in 2012. By virtue of setting precedent, Adam Silver has in fact become the commissioner Olbermann described in his essay so now the mere uncovering of one in a chain of hundreds of e-mails that had racist undertones has now forced the hand of one of the 126 most powerful men in sports.
So while it took Roger Goodell up until just recently to realize that he's the commissioner and by that he can supersede the CBA his bosses signed with the NFLPA to pass judgment, Adam Silver has exercised it once with an iron fist and has now forced the hand of someone else Big Brother style. George Orwell would be proud. So in this sense the role of the commissioner in sports is not just about growing the business, but also to in fact "exercise broad administrative and judicial authority" along with that. And it's never a case of black or white when it comes to a role as broad and powerful as this one is. But there's a third part to this role that doesn't get talked about nearly enough...
These people are PR gatekeepers. The "successes" of Adam Silver came by circumstance to him, while his predecessor sat on his hands for 25-30 years on the same knowledge that Adam Silver needed about 3 weeks to act upon. Roger Goodell recently indefinitely suspended Ray Rice based on the video that graphically showed Rice knocking out his wife against an elevator bar, and unfortunately he did it because PR dictated he had to. He had already dug his own grave thanks to the first suspension handed out to Rice, and the lack of suspensions handed out to other domestic abusers that played without any sort of negative press, and the other insane suspensions handed out for drug violations, etc. etc. Thanks to public pressure, Goodell had to cover his own behind for PR purposes. He and the Ravens deserve no credit for what they did since it was largely done by circumstance for them due to public pressure when it should have been done immediately. But that's nothing new. Adam Silver despite all the praise essentially did the same thing. Bud Selig's tough stance on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs despite the double standards did the same thing, and the NHL's clever news drops such as burying a concussion lawsuit by announcing a $5.6 billion Canadian TV rights deal is no different. These people are supposed to be masters of PR, and yet their biggest fault is often how poor they are at playing this game.
While the role of commissioner is not what it once was as a pure arbiter of sports to "exercise broad administrative and judicial authority", it is not solely about growing the business. It's about a combination of those things, and how that mixture is spun. Recently, the end product of this entire glutenous mess from all 4 sports has been more often than not terrible. But there is no doubt that it can be improved. Good will isn't a bottomless well flowing with free passes as recent events have shown. As the role of the commissioner has evolved, so should the criticism all these men get on a daily basis. We as a sports populace cannot pigeonhole the role to fit narratives, we must evolve our opinions to meet the situations, just as the commissioners themselves should.
As masters of PR they can change the focus when they want to. They might want to get on that soon.