THE POWER THAT RUNS SPORTS ISN'T PHYSICAL, DESPITE ALL THOSE POWER HITTERS AND POWER FORWARDS, POWER PLAYS AND POWER ALLEYS.
It isn't electrical, either, though when the lights go out at the Super Bowl, the most powerful man in sports is the guy with the ELECTRICIANS DO IT WITHOUT SHORTS bumper sticker. In the land of the half-lit, the light bulb salesman is king, a reminder that all power is contextual and ever-shifting.
Consider poor King Richard III, killed in battle in 1485 and recently discovered in eternal repose, buried beneath a parking lot in England, the back of his skull sheared off by an edged weapon. Physical power was prized in medieval times—as it remains today at Medieval Times—when jousting and swordplay could win men thrones.
In the power-obsessed HBO series Game of Thrones (Season 3 of which premieres on March 31), set vaguely in a bizarro Middle Ages, a courtier tries to blackmail his queen. "Knowledge is power," he says. The queen has him seized by guards, threatened with throat slitting, and only when he's a quivering mass of simpering servility—a sword at his neck—does she finally remind him, "Power is power."
So what constitutes power in the 21st century? Where does it come from? And why aren't our most powerful sportsmen the men who actually play sports? In sports, as in life, power is often inherited (think of Kim Jong Un or Hal Steinbrenner), seized by force (Napoleon, Mike Tyson) or passed peacefully beyond bloodlines (Bush-to-Obama, David Stern--to--deputy Adam Silver). Transfers of power in sports are less bloody than in Game of Thrones but no less intriguing, which is why it's worth asking in the following pages, Who sits atop our Throne of Games?
None of the men or women—and, perhaps regrettably, the vast majority of sports power is wielded by men—in our ranking of the 50 most powerful people in sports are current athletes themselves. It's a list dominated by power lunchers, not powerlifters, which is why we've given athletes a separate list entirely. "Power resides where men believe it resides," says a wise spymaster in Game of Thrones. "It's a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow." Think of sub-6-footers Gary Bettman and David Stern, or Barcelona's 5'6" soccer magician, Lionel Messi: small men in vast spotlights throwing colossal shadows across the globe. As an athlete, Messi (page 51) is a party of one—the best player on the best team in the most popular game on Earth—yet even he finds himself, in this power lunch, at a forlorn table by the loo. All the power in the room radiates from Table No. 1, with its brass nameplates and suited fat cats.
It goes without saying that everyone on our guest list is a titan. But the intramural power plays among these power brokers are fascinating in their own right. Up front, in the sumptuous red-velvet banquettes by the window, sit the various commissioners. And yet they are nominally hired hands, serving at the behest of team owners. Of course, try telling that to Saints owner Tom Benson. His team was spanked by NFL commish Roger Goodell, who wields enormous power over the individual owners who employ him.
Goodell is treated as a head of state—he annually delivers a State of the League address at a lectern decorated with a starred-and-striped shield—and he is a head of state in his own way. The NFL's annual TV revenue of more than $6 billion is less than the GDP of Zimbabwe but more than the GDP of San Marino. The NFL is a kind of independent nation—call it Dan Marino—and has been for longer than many traditional sovereignties.
For more than half a century Goodell's predecessors have been called autocrats, monarchs of unlimited authority. (And that was by friends.) As early as 1969, former Jets defensive back Johnny Sample was denouncing one of Goodell's predecessors, Pete Rozelle, as "a dictator" with "too much power." Long before that, in the search for the first baseball commissioner in 1920, National League president John Heydler sought "a chairman who will rule with an iron hand"—and he found one in the terrifying, God-haired Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who looked as if he had fallen from a ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel.
By 1977, when a judge affirmed the validity of baseball's Major League Agreement, by which owners waived their right to sue the commissioner, A's owner Charlie Finley fumed that then commish Bowie Kuhn held a stronger hand than Jimmy Carter. "That anyone could have more authority than the law of the land is impossible to believe," Finley said. "If the decision is upheld, this man would have more power and authority than the President of the United States."