As the year comes to a close, the masters of sports find themselves bruised, battered and in altogether dire straits. Twenty fourteen will be remembered as a turning point, when those in charge of the multibillion-dollar athletic-industrial complex—the commissioners, the network executives, the team owners—saw their control over the levers of power slip in a decisive fashion. They are now a collection of Fantasia Mickey Mouses: sorcerers who are unable to corral and contain their own spells.
This will be remembered as the year when a bomb that had been ticking for several years exploded. The accelerant has been the power of athlete- and fan-generated social media to launch news cycles, spread video and audio at light speed and mushroom controversies that otherwise would not have existed.
As sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards said to me, “I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.”
Dr. Edwards is absolutely right. Think about the sports stories of the year and how distinct just about any of the narratives are from the established athletic hierarchies of the past century. Then consider the role that social communication has played in this process. We saw Donald Sterling jettisoned after thirty years as an NBA owner for being caught on tape being a verbose racist. When the audio spread, players condemned him on social media, they organized symbolic protests and even threatened to wildcat strike during the playoffs. Fans were outraged, and a new commissioner, Adam Silver, had him removed from ownership. Keep in mind that Sterling had a thirty-year record of racist detritus in his business and personal affairs, yet, true to past practices, it was always ignored. The audio and the ground-up reaction changed the power dynamics, and a billionaire inside the country club became a casualty of public relations. The story has had owners publicly expressing fears of their own vulnerability as well as launching a million jokes about trying to get Washington football team owner Dan Snyder or Knicks albatross James Dolan saying something—anything—incriminating on tape.
Then there was the viral elevator footage of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay. The NFL has a decades-long track record of covering-up or ignoring domestic violence. Roger Goodell had blithely continued that tradition and was ready to do it again in conjunction with the Baltimore Ravens management. This was a commissioner who had suspended fifty-six players accused of domestic violence for a combined thirteen games over his tenure. But one video conjoined with a mountain of dubious truths coming from the commissioner’s office somehow turned Ray Rice into a victim and turned Roger Goodell—formerly lauded as the most powerful man in sports—into a national joke.