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Owners Should Be Seen and Not Heard

October 30, 2006

Suppose the chief executive of a public company announced that he would fine any shareholder $25,000 if they publicly criticized any aspect of the company's management. Would shareholders--to say nothing of the press--support such a policy? Of course not.

Unless you're talking about professional sports. Not only are such policies routine, but the sports press openly applauds acts of censorship. Newly-installed National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell recently fined Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney a record $25,000 for criticizing game officials after his team lost a close game. Rooney said the officials "ought to be ashamed of themselves." Such criticism is taboo under Roger Goodell's rule.

And that's how it should be, wrote Peter King of Sports Illustrated:

Most of Goodell's advisers wanted him to give Rooney a pass. But Goodell was firm: No one had more respect for Rooney than Goodell, but there had to be equal treatment for all, and certainly the world would be watching this one. And Goodell felt not only that Rooney should be fined, but also that an owner should be held to a higher standard than players and coaches. So he told his staff that he was fining Rooney $25,000.

Goodell made it clear that this would be the fine owners would have to pay if they crossed the line with their comments about officials. He figures that if they make those kinds of comments without fear of retribution, what is to stop coaches and players from doing the same? Good call. Excellent call, in fact. More than just the fine of Rooney, the action should trumpet the fact that there will be no sacred cows in Goodell's world, which is the way it has to be.

I suspect King wouldn't be so pro-censorship if he was fined for criticizing his various employers, including SI and NBC Sports. Of course, King is just an employee; Rooney is an equity partner in the NFL. Goodell is the employee. But there's nothing more romanticized among sports writers than the authoritarian commissioner.

King's choice of words is also telling. He speaks of Goodell having no "sacred cows," meaning Rooney, the NFL's senior owner. But according to Goodell and King, game officials are indeed sacred cows who are beyond any public criticism from the people who pay their salaries.

This is the same mentality that led regulators to pass anti-takeover rules designed to insulate incumbent management from outside criticism. And if the business press was run by the Peter Kings of the world, the SEC would no doubt prohibit shareholder criticism of management outside "approved" channels. (Just like campaign finance "reform"!)

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