"Hey, fans, go away. We hate you. But wait, first give us all your money. Drain your bank accounts for those PSLs and front row seats to Yankee Stadium. That's right, fork it over. There you go. And we'll be sure to give you a watered-down version of our games -- and we'll even use substandard, amateur referees to ensure they become a debacle. That is, if we even lower ourselves to give you a season to watch. Now, take a hike.Vamoose. We couldn't care less about you." With every passing day, that's the message that Roger Goodell, Gary Bettman and Bud Selig is sending to its fans. They don't come right out and say that, of course, but their actions speak louder than their empty words.
The NFL lockout of its referees is finally over, but the damage is done. Roger Goodell, in his role as caretaker of the league, has to be blamed for the fiasco that's taken place the first three weeks of the season. The controversial ending to the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks game was the final straw that led to a resolution -- would the league still be stuck with the replacements, though, if that Monday night massacre didn't occur? Of course. It was public pressure that finally forced the league to act (and let's not discount the Las Vegas angle). The whole situation, with the replacement refs blowing one call after another, almost made Bill Belichick, who's the biggest, grumpiest sore loser in the NFL, a sympathetic figure (ok, not quite). The NFL is at the height of its popularity, it finally has the perfect setup, with eight four-team divisions, and, unlike the other major sports, it has the perfect amount of teams qualifying for the postseason. Neither Bounty-gate nor Concussion-gate could spoil things for the league, but the performance of the replacement officials was making a mockery of the NFL. Goodell did offer an apology, but it was tepid at best, and he still defended the blatantly wrong call from Monday night, which didn't fool anyone.
There's a long list of losers -- the players, the teams, the fans, the league itself and everyone who bet on the Packers. Even the poor saps who were officiating (or should we say, bungling?) the games fall under the "loser" category (one of the magical aspects of being a married parent is the constant barrage of phrases such as "I hate you!" and "You've ruined my life!" hurled your way by your loved ones, so I know exactly how they feel, by the way). The games were even getting somewhat dangerous, with the replacements not being able to instill law and order on the field of play. Though the lockout is finally resolved, it won't change the results of the games already played. Those are already in the books. The nightmare is over, and the returning refs were welcomed back as heroes with a standing ovation at the Browns-Ravens game (was it the first ever standing ovation for officials in the history of the world?), but that loss to the Seahawks still counts for the Packers.
Goodell's hockey counterpart, Gary Bettman, is taking a sinking sport (at least in the U.S.) and holding it hostage to appease a handful of rich owners. The game of hockey can't afford any more damage that it's already inflicted on itself, nor can it afford to lose anymore fans, yet, it keeps on shooting itself in the foot. Under Bettman's watch, his sport has descended in America's sports pecking order, with bad TV contracts, ill-advised expansion in all the wrong places and one cancelled season already under his belt. The most intriguing, popular event the NHL has produced lately -- the Winter Classic -- basically came about by accident, not exactly the brainchild of the commissioner (if the lockout is resolved, will that be the season opener, the way the NBA began on Christmas last year?). The last thing the sport needs is another lost season or a jammed-up, truncated schedule with teams playing three nights in a row. The preseason has been officially cancelled -- is the regular season next?
We might as well throw Bud Selig in with these other two (David Stern gets a day off today), as he's the king of the bungling commissioners, having already cancelled a World Series, not to mention the embarrassing tie in the All-Star Game. Every change he's made to his sport over the course of his tenure has been established with one goal in mind: Lining the pockets of the owners who have hired him. Whether it was realignment, the wild card, the second wild card or interleague play, these "gifts to the fans" have been enacted for one purpose -- to make the owners richer. Ticket prices have become outrageous, all with Selig's approval, as empty seats have become de rigueur, especially behind home plate, where only Donald Trump -- or Bud Selig -- can afford to sit. With every move Selig makes, he backs the game into a corner -- add a wild card to increase more playoff races? Well, that just lessened divisional races. Add a second wild card so winning a division has more meaning? Great, one more chance for a mediocre team to qualify for the postseason, making the whole month of October a crapshoot as opposed to actually having the few best teams, who have proven themselves over the course of the marathon 162-game schedule, battle it out. His next bit of magic is moving the Houston Astros to the American League in 2013, therefore creating two odd-numbered leagues, forcing an interleague game every day of the season, with a crazy, unbalanced schedule. And his crowning achievement: Turning a blind eye to PEDs, giving the Bud Selig era one big asterisk.
Sure, each sport features its own complicated issues, involving different unions, separate unique problems and millions, or even billions, of dollars. But the NHL season is in jeopardy, the NFL's integrity was in jeopardy and baseball's competitive balance and fair play have been in jeopardy for two decades. The old saying about an accountable, responsible leader, "The buck stops here," is apropos of each commissioner. The only problem, though, is, he's taking that buck, with millions more, and stuffing the owners' pockets (not to mention his own). As always, the fans are the ones who come out on the bottom. And with an empty wallet to boot.