Over the years, the NFL’s Commissioner has navigated plenty of difficult situations that could have tested the tenuous balance between the Commissioner’s role as the overseer of the sport and his job as employee of the owners of the teams he oversees. Through it all, an inherent conflict of interest has existed, hiding in plain sight and generating scant scrutiny or concern: How can the Commissioner be expected to police the very people for whom he works?
It’s an obscure, nuanced question, causing few to notice the dilemma faced by the master who is also a servant. And while in most past cases the Commissioner has found a way to solve problems without making conspicuous the delicate ground on which he often treads, the recent bungling of cases like the Ray Rice fiasco and #DeflateGate eventually will cause someone with real political power to notice the fundamental flaw in the structure of the league — and to suggest a solution that would entail a greater degree of independence for the Commissioner.
For the NFL (and other pro sports), a truly independent governing body would be the only way to reliably ensure that all problems would be handled consistently and all franchises treated fairly, without regard to friendship or influence or other factors that could cause a Commissioner to exercise discretion in a way that protects and/or advances the Commissioner’s relationship with a given owner. As it now stands, the NFL (and other pro sports) have a Commissioner who at times pretends to be the representative of all interested constituencies when, in reality, he’s the guy working for the folks who own the teams.
While an election process for Commissioner, with owners, players, coaches, and maybe others voting on the person who would rule the sport, would create plenty of challenges, a broadening of the pool of people who pick the Commissioner would help to alleviate the obvious problem faced by someone who is expected to impose discipline against someone who has a direct, 1/32nd voice in the compensation and/or ongoing employment of the Commissioner. The far bigger wildcard for the NFL (and other pro sports) would arise from a decision by Congress to create an office or a board responsible for supervising the sport, enforcing the rules, and punishing those who cheat.
Before the “doesn’t Congress have anything better to do?” crowd gets too cranked up, the ongoing growth of the NFL — coupled with the benefits it receives from federal legislation that makes the league office a non-profit operation and that exempts the NFL from antitrust laws when it comes to the marketing of TV rights — could eventually compel action, if the NFL can’t properly govern itself. In recent months, the league has undermined considerably public confidence in its ability to clean up its own messes. At some point, a politician will suggest that someone else should police the sport.
While still an incredibly unlikely outcome, the league’s mishandling of recent crises at least puts the potential debate in a corner of the radar. More mistakes could move the subject closer to the center of the screen.