Trust. It’s one of the most difficult words in the English language to get a handle on. We preach to our children to not trust strangers. But we, as adults, are some of the the most trusting creatures on this planet — even if we think otherwise. Just think about how many times a day you put your faith in someone or something else other than yourself. Walking to school, driving to work, crossing an intersection, using an elevator, shaking hands, sharing a story with a friend or colleague, discussing weekend plans, and so on. We trust every day that people won’t hurt us, injure us, judge us, tease us, make us sick, make us sad, or wrong us. But ask someone about trust, and they’ll say “I don’t trust anyone” or “you can’t trust people anymore” or “don’t trust people at their word”. How we view and talk about the word is much different than how we behave and interact with it.
The NFL has a trust issue. And it starts with it’s commissioner. Roger Goodell. The 58-year old Goodell is entering his 17th season as the czar of the National Football League. In that decade-and-a-half-plus, Goodell has worked to expand the NFL to more overseas games and has put many more millions of dollars into his owners’ pockets over that time. On the other hand, he has also managed to alienate some of his star players through the means in which he suspends and fines them; Goodell, also, has lost the trust of a large section of former players over how he and his league have handled controversies, like CTE and player health during and after their NFL careers.
The NHL has a trust issue. And it, too, starts and ends with commissioner Gary Bettman. Since his career as commissioner began in 1993, Bettman has never been able to get past his slow and disastrous start out of the blocks — which was the 1994 lockout of the players. The NHL seemed poised to take leaps and bounds forward in popularity and financial gain after the New York Rangers ended their 50-year Stanley Cup drought by hoisting the trophy that summer. However, Bettman could not bring the players and owners together so the ensuing season started with a lockout. And since, Bettman hasn’t exactly been a wiz in trying to bring his most loyal fans back. Instead, there have been two more lockouts (one that took away the entire 2004-05 season) and numerous failed expansions of franchises to locations like Raleigh, Phoenix, and Atlanta yet cities like Winnipeg (for a long time) and Quebec were left empty-handed. The Canadians think he’s trying to take their teams away and Americans, quite honestly, don’t want the franchises that Bettman brings to them — at least not in the locations he chooses. For Bettman, it’s all about money, and the trust that fans put in him clearly gets pushed to the back-burner.
Major League Baseball does not have these trust issues — partially because commissioner Rob Manfred is only in the infant stages of his job. But watch him closely — he’s making decisions that while it appears are good for the game and geared at intentionally entertaining a younger fan base, players are a bit weary and the older audience is curious to why the national pastime is re-tooling it’s rules. I’m not judging Manfred — just saying it’s too early.
This brings us to the NBA. Adam Silver has only been in charge of the NBA for three years, but he may have had to confront the biggest challenge of any sports commissioner in his opening
six months of the job when he swiftly and firmly forced former Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell the franchise and, then, consequently, banned him for life from the league. Silver, who seemingly, is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and conscientious, put the owners back on their heels following the Sterling situation.
In the years following, Silver has made moves on tangible issues, such as re-locating the 2017 All Star Game from Charlotte out of respect for the LGBT community. But his impact has reached deeper. He’s facilitated talks with owners and sponsors about weekday morning tip-offs and revamping the seeding for the playoffs. Yes, of course, there’s money involved and Silver wants increase his league’s profitability — I’m not naive to think those thoughts don’t cross his mind. But it seems like his initiatives and proposals all have one common factor: they’re all in the best interest of fans.
Recently, Silver spoke about changing the way fans can watch NBA games, more specifically,
how they can watch the final minutes. Silver appears to be more in touch with this generation’s fanbase than his fellow commissioners. He understands that the NBA has to compete with smartphones, technology, Twitter, Instagram, and fading attention spans. What millennial can devote 2 1/2 hours to a basketball game? Fans who buy tickets and are actually at the games can’t resist their phones and all the distractions that take their attention away for the product on the court, let alone those of us at home sitting on our couches with even more distractions.
At the root of many of the commissioner’s initiatives lies what he feels is best for the fans of the NBA — what will keep the fans that already exist and what can work to bring in another faction of potential fans. And that’s why so many fans and players (and owners) appreciate what he’s doing and have come to trust him in only three short years.
So when Silver sits with the Players Association representatives and proposes items, they will at least listen and give him their respect — in their eyes, he’s earned it. He’s earned their trust. There are stories of LeBron James and other superstars casually, informally dropping by the commissioner’s New York City office when they’re in town, just to sit and talk. Much in part to his track record, the players trust in what Silver’s doing.
Now comes a moment that, while it may not come to define his tenure as commissioner, could certainly shape (or reshape) how players, fans, and coaches view him. Fans, who Silver seems to put first above almost everyone else associated with the league, are unhappy with how and when coaches and teams choose to rest their players — namely their superstars. A coach like
Gregg Popovich has been practicing this for years now — he’ll give his whole starting five the night off, whether it’s a midweek game against the Nuggets or whether it’s a Saturday primetime game on national television against the Warriors. Now the practice has spread to Golden State and Cleveland — resting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving. The angle from the coaches is obvious — rested players are better in May and June than are fatigued players; and the coaches engaging in this are quite often times playing late into May and usually in June in the Finals.
But Silver has a responsibility as the head of the league. On one hand, he can’t forcibly make coaches play guys who they want to rest because it’s in the player’s and team’s best interest. Yet, he can’t ignore cries from fans, who shell out big bucks for tickets and all that goes with attending a professional basketball game.
Silver has stated that this is “a significant issue for the league” and that fans and sponsors deserve better; he’s also said he understands “there isn’t an easy solution to [the] problem”.
However this ends and whatever Silver’s solution is, likely, it will not be universally loved; but the commissioner has worked hard at building up a lot of goodwill with all parties involved. And that goodwill should suit him well as he hopes to find another layer of trust that fellow commissioners in other leagues cannot seem to find.
Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed, @brian22goodwin.