There are many sports fans who insist on believing that old bromide that sports and politics do not mix. They are living in a fantasyland and cannot distinguish between the real world and the reel world.
Indeed, three of the greatest commissioners in the history of American professional sports were from the world of government and politics. The first commissioner of Major League Baseball was former federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He restored integrity to baseball after the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series.
The successor to Landis was Albert “Happy” Chandler, who formerly held office as governor of Kentucky and U.S. Senator from that state. His support of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and specifically his approval of the Dodgers’ contract with Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, despite the objection of the fifteen other owners, made possible the integration of Major League Baseball, the beginning of the process of making America one nation.
As for the National Basketball Association (NBA), a critical historic role was played by Larry O’Brien, the third Commissioner of the NBA, who served from 1975 until 1984. O’Brien previously had served as a White House political aide to President John F. Kennedy and Postmaster General under President Lyndon Baines Johnson. O’Brien directed the successful NBA-ABA merger which brought the American Basketball Association franchises into the NBA. When he left as Commissioner, the NBA Championship Trophy was renamed the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, a deserved tribute to an outstanding sports executive and a most honorable public servant.
The political talents of all three of these individuals were critical to their success as chief executives of their respective sports. Even Pete Rozelle, the National Football League Commissioner (NFL) who in my view was history’s most successful sports chief executive, was a person of enormous political talent, although he came from a public relations background, rather than the world of politics.
Rozelle made the deal in 1966 which resulted in Congress passing legislation which exempted the NFL-AFL merger from antitrust laws. Specifically, in order to secure passage, he obtained the support of two key Democratic members of Congress from Louisiana, Senator Russell Long and Representative Hale Boggs by promising a franchise to New Orleans. This was a classic case of the interaction of sports and politics.
The National Football League is now facing a deep crisis of image and credibility as a result of the ongoing spousal and familial abuse scandals. These problems cannot be resolved as long as Roger Goodell continues to serve as commissioner, particularly after his disastrous performance at last Friday’s press conference. The stories that made news today in the New York Daily News about the meetings between Goodell and Ray Rice indicate that the Commissioner has been outright lying.
Forget about the fact that most of the lodge brothers of the NFL continue to support Goodell’s continuation in office, particularly Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II and New York Giants owner John Mara. Right now, Goodell has all the credibility of Richard Nixon during Watergate. He is receiving annual compensation of $42 million from the NFL. He should not continue in office for one more day. It’s time for him to go.
Fortunately, there is a person from the world of politics who will make a superb NFL Commissioner. Her name was first suggested by the outstanding journalist from the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart, on September 8. Since then, many other journalists have supported Capehart and have advocated, as I do, the election of former Secretary of State Condoleezza “Condi” Rice as NFL Commissioner. Condi Rice is exactly whom the NFL needs to serve as its leader.
Condi Rice is a woman of superb character and intellect, and her very election as Commissioner will go a long way towards repairing the damage to the NFL resulting from the recent scandals. She is a person of comprehensive football knowledge, as evidenced by her continuing service on the NCAA College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
Today, the NFL is a mega billion dollar business. It has come a long way from the days when I started following pro football in 1956. In those days, the NFL was basically a Mom and Pop operation, run by the late Commissioner Bert Bell from an office upstairs in a Philadelphia bank. The NFL has long since moved to Park Avenue in Manhattan, and it requires a Commissioner of superb executive experience and ability. Condi Rice is that person.
There is one more aspect that will result from the election of Condi Rice as NFL Commissioner. She will be the first woman and first African-American to be elected as a commissioner of a major American sport. This will be a magnificent event, deserving of celebration by the American public.
And somewhere in heaven, Condi’s fellow Republican, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, will be rejoicing.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.