Monday night's Commissioner Bowl on ESPN outlined the different stakes and situations for the leagues.
The NBA and NHL are lucky to be in a space with a regular season behind them. Their futures are complicated, but they can avoid the money fight. The NFL's schedule -- and sudden embrace of social justice -- appears to have it in a good spot. That league also has time on its side, unlike the other three.
Major League Baseball? It's a mess, as is the current reputation of its commissioner, Rob Manfred. Manfred is a self-assured lawyer steeped in baseball negotiations. He handled baseball's first drug testing agreement with the MLBPA when he served as Executive Vice President of Economics and League Affairs almost 20 years ago. He went on to lead the league's Biogenesis investigation in 2013. Manfred became commissioner the following year.
A quarter century ago, Manfred was outside counsel for the league. Major League Baseball was in the middle of a work stoppage. The postseason was flushed for the first time. No league champions, no World Series, baseball's most harrowing stoppage in its history was under way in 1994-95 when he was advising the league how to handle things.
So, he's seen all this. In all of its layers. What ugly stoppages look like. What no postseason does to the sport. How much integrity of a season and a league matter in times of strife.
Yet, baseball is in the muck and much of it is the commissioner's doing.
His flip from "100 percent" guaranteeing a baseball season to taking a step back less than a week later is alarming. It signals he's on unsure ground, that he didn't see the union's next move before it happened, that he is fearful of losing a grievance. He's been outmaneuvered and is losing on two fronts: the baseball public is angry; his employers, the owners, are not pleased.
Which puts now and the future at his feet.
Manfred can impose the season as he sees fit. It appears to be one of the few line items both sides agree on. He has largely wound baseball into this boondoggle, now it's his job to pull it out.
If he doesn't, his job could be at stake. At a minimum, he will descend into Bettman Booing territory, where each public appearance is filled with verbal negatives. Trophy presentations, big events, wherever the commissioner is seen, "BOOOOO."
Commissioner is a tricky and unforgiving spot. The NBA's Adam Silver stands as the clear forerunner among the major four sports. Silver has masterfully satisfied all three audiences -- owners, players and fans -- as much as a commissioner can. No commissioner will be universally beloved. And, some are able to ride through periods of more prosperity than scandal -- as Silver is now -- instead of problem after problem.
But, those scenarios are also created by what a commissioner does. Is he immediately in tune with the social justice feeling of his league? Does he understand what's better for everybody is better for everybody? Does he realize the players can't play without the owners and the owners can't make their long-term money without the players?
Manfred now says he wants to negotiate. The owners wasted all of May. They could have resolved this then. None of the parameters have moved. Only the calendar has ticked along.
They wanted to wait. Why? The shallower the dates to play, the less games that could be played. They set this arbitrary and inflexible date of Sept. 27 for the season to end. As soon as they did that, they signalled their intention to shrink the season, shrink their losses and, accordingly, shrink the players' pay. With a wall at one end, they just needed to keep pushing the wall at the other end closer. They could eventually throw their hands up, point at the timeline as the forcing hand, and try to exonerate their feet-dragging accordingly.
Instead, they are the clear losers in the public forum. The commissioner is contradicting himself in a matter of days. He's riding a winter where he described the World Series trophy as a "piece of metal" and now is disparaging the players further. Does he love the game or his position? The players think they know the answer, adding a personal level of disdain to already problematic talks.
Half of June is over. Starting on July 4 is impossible. This has boiled down to the commissioner. Will he get something reasonable done? Or will this outcome, and his reputation as a steward of the game, sink further?
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