This story appears in the March 11, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
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 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 Zim-babwe 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."
Of course, those same team owners are almost always potentates in their own right. Their complaints are a form of power chasing its own tail -- owners empowering commissioners who discipline owners who compensate commissioners who hand trophies to owners following the Super Bowl.
Anyone who thinks sports are ruled by athletes need only think of American sports' most enduring tradition: Immediately after a championship, as the champagne sprays and the confetti falls, the trophy is passed not to the team captain but most often to the team owner, handed to him by his highest-ranking employee, the league commissioner. It is the Great Buzzkill, that ceremonial first interview of the man in the suit with the biggest bank account in the room.
Rather than a Power List, it would be more accurate (if less fun) to design a Power Flow Chart, showing how influence, like rain, falls from on high, gets driven sideways, penetrates the ground, returns to its source and affects everything it touches, for good and bad. The people on this list are people, but they're also weather. One move from any of them can cause a profound change in their environment, dictating what we watch, what it costs and whether it's any good.
The famous saying "Power corrupts" is almost universally accepted as true, despite not actually having been said that way. What Lord Acton did say -- wrote, actually, in an 1887 letter -- was "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He added, a tad cynically, "Great men are almost always bad men."
No such inference is to be drawn from our list, though many other clichés about power are true in their own way. There really is power in perception, for instance. The great and powerful Oz wasn't great, but he was powerful so long as his constituents thought so. It certainly didn't hurt Stan Kroenke -- owner of the St. Louis Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Arsenal of the English Premier League -- that his nickname for years was Silent Stan (before he recently sat for a long profile in SI).
Would Vic Power, who played in five All-Star Games in 12 big league seasons, have been nearly as formidable had he gone by his birth name, Victor Pellot?
Maybe. Maybe not. What's certain is that ranking powerful people is inherently self-defeating. For starters, true potentates know who they are without being told, and they have no need to announce it. "Being powerful is like being a lady," said Margaret Thatcher. "If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." (On the other hand, exceedingly few people buy major league sports teams -- or aspire to play for them -- as a way to lower their profile.)
There is another way power lists can self-immolate. Indeed, they're designed to do so. Because power, like everything else in life -- life included -- is ephemeral. As sure as professional golfers hit "power fades" .?.?. power fades. Always and inevitably, power fades. Stern, Bud Selig and Jacques Rogge all plan to step down by the end of next year and cede their power to others. Headline writers love the phrase "power grab," but you can't really grab it, can you? Power is a greased watermelon, a wisp of smoke, difficult to grasp, harder to hold, impossible to control while getting both feet down in bounds. Take, for example, No. 3 on our list, Philip Anschutz. If (when, really) he sells AEG -- poof, there goes the power.
As you read in the accompanying gallery about those people who occupy the thrones -- on a humbler throne of your own, perhaps -- bear in mind that the powers that be are themselves subjected to power. Everyone is. Indeed, the phrase "powers that be" comes from the Bible, distinguishing those powers from a "higher power" still, suggesting a cosmic pecking order literally from Day One.
Whatever your religious or philosophical beliefs, the powers that be are by definition in a state of transience, for that is what being is: To be .?.?. then not to be. And so SI's ranking will look different next year, or even next month. (It was only in November, after all, that SI suggested that if money is power, then Kroenke is the most powerful man in sports; since then, Arsenal, which he owns, has tanked, and we've had one Super Bowl to remind us of the full power of the NFL.) For power is not just the great aphrodisiac -- and we'll have to take Henry Kissinger's word on that -- it is also a strong hallucinogenic, never quite what it appears to be.
All kingdoms look small through an airplane window -- little dominions built on quicksand. But looking up from the ground, where most of us stand, they're rather impressive. A Jenga tower, no matter how fragile, is still a tower.