Ranking the Power of America's Sports Commissioners

This week, Major League Baseball will grapple with "Hurricane Biogenesis," a self-inflicted typhoon of suspensions, angst, and fighting appeals that will test the power of baseball's commissioner.  Bud Selig, Major League Baseball's power-that-be for two decades, will stare down Alex Rodriguez, who was once – long ago - anointed the greatest baseball player of all time.

Bud Selig, David Stern, the long-time, soon-retiring commissioner of the National Basketball Association, and Roger Goodell of the National Football League together control the crown jewels of American sports.  How great is their power; both within their own sports and relative to each other?

The answers, as always, are complex; often pitting the personal authority and reputation of each particular individual against the commissioner's actual power in his sport.

Selig is the perfect example of this dichotomy.  A former baseball owner, the consummate insider, and in power since the early 1990s without a single work stoppage in over 15 years, Selig has more personal authority than either of his counterparts.  He is "popular" by the standards of American commissioners, which roughly translates to mean his decisions have been met with general approval; even on controversial issues like the steroid crisis.  Indeed, his recent aggressive policies, particularly on drug testing, have successfully paved over accusations of vacillation during the early years of the PED scandal.  But, is Selig's personal authority tantamount to real power?

Yes – and no.  Selig is, probably correctly, seen as the vortex of the Biogenesis suspensions; the final decision maker in a bitter, scandal-driven process.  Said to want to ban Alex Rodriguez for life according to several high quality sources, his power to do so is severely limited by baseball's tight arbitration process.  Baseball has the largest, most well-guaranteed salaries of any major sport so, unlike his counterparts in football – who would simply be suspended then cut – Rodriguez has the right to go to a formal arbitration hearing and fight a lengthy battle to ensure the Yankees pay the entirely of his contract.

Ranking the Power of America's Sports Commissioners
April 4, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; MLB commissioner Bud Selig in attendance before the opening day game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Photo Courtesy By Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports.

So, how does Selig's power compare to that of Roger Goodell?  There is an almost fascinating dichotomy: Selig holds great personal authority but little real power over baseball's antiquated, complex arbitration processes while Goodell is despised by vast majorities of fans, players, and team personnel and lacks any real personal credibility yet would easily have the commissioners' authority to destroy a lengthy suspension.  Consider, for instance, Goodell's near-arbitrary decision to suspend coach Sean Payton for an entire season due to the Bounty-gate scandal: Payton's offenses, while meriting censure, certainly do not stack up to Rodriguez's lies to baseball investigators, alleged destruction of evidence, and numerous reports and evidence of a decade-plus of PED violations.
If Rodriguez were a football player, Goodell would have parlayed evidence of his numerous violations into a 20-plus game suspension and the Yankees would have released him from the remainder of his – presumably un-guaranteed – contract.

Game over. 

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