Mind Sight: Should Pro Sports Owners Need a License to Run a Team?

Running a team involves more than having the money to buy one. It involves an understanding of the game; an ability to make the right decisions with respect to hiring a general manager, a coach, assistant coaches, and players; and a sound judgment about how involved he or she should be in day-to-day operations such as player trades, coaching decisions, and contract negotiations.

Owners must keep up with the latest medical knowledge about things like concussions, and not ask players to do things that would result in long-term injury or brain disorders. It is the owner, not the general manager or coach, who has the final decision on all matters. Running a team is certainly a more complex operation than driving a car or giving a massage, and the well-being of many more people, not to mention their livelihood and health, are on the line. Yet both of the former require licenses, while running a team does not.

Some owners have a knack for running their teams, coming up with one contender after another. Successful owners might include Robert Kraft, whose New England Patriots have made the playoffs in 12 of the 17 years of his ownership, won the AFC championship 11 times, and the Super Bowl three times.

Kraft is revered by both coaches and players. In 2000, he appointed Bill Belichick both coach and general manager of the Patriots and took a hands-off approach to day-to-day operations. He is there with advice and support for both coaches and players, but does not impose himself. When his wife, Myra, died of cancer early in 2011, all the players on the Patriots wore patches honoring her for the rest of the season. Owners like Kraft not only do what is necessary for their teams to be successful, including winning championships, they also do what is necessary for the well-being of staff and players.

And then there is James Dolan, who manages the sports interests of Cablevision, including the New York Knicks of the NBA, the New York Rangers of the NHL, and the New York Liberty of the WNBA. There are a number of owners who could be mentioned here, but Dolan's tenure seems to be the most egregious.

None of the above three teams has been successful (all have had losing records), but his management of the New York Knicks has come under the most fire. Recently, Fox Sports called Dolan the 2nd worst owner in the NBA. At one point, even David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, criticized Dolan's management of the Knicks, saying, "They're not a model of intelligent management."

Although the Knicks made the NBA Finals in 1999, they have not won a playoff game since the 2000-2001 season, nor did they post a winning record until the 2010-2011 season. Furthermore, the Knicks didn't make the playoffs from the 2003-2004 season to the 2009-2010 season. Each time they made the playoffs, they were swept in the first round. In the past few weeks, under interim coach Mike Woodson, the Knicks have gone on a winning streak, but this does not erase Dolan's record.

Examples of Dolan's poor management of the Knicks are abundant. In 2001, at a time when nobody else had offered more than $75 million, he gave guard Allan Houston a 6-year, $100 million contract. (After four injury-plagued years, with over $40 million remaining on his contract, Houston was gone.) In 2005, the Knicks signed head coach Larry Brown to a 5-year, $50-million contract. Brown was one of many "saviors" that Dolan had brought in (the latest being forward Carmelo Anthony). Brown coached one season before Dolan fired him and bought out Brown's contract for $18 million. The net result: Brown made a cool $28 million by coaching the Knicks for just a year.

Perhaps his most infamous decision was to hire Isiah Thomas as team president of basketball operations and general manager. He continued to support Thomas through five seasons as both President and then coach, seasons in which the Knicks made the playoffs only once. He even presented Thomas a contract extension despite his poor performance. What was even worse was his support of Thomas' treatment of Knicks executive Anucha Brown Sanders, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. When she complained to Dolan about Thomas, he fired her, resulting in her successful $11-million lawsuit against Dolan and the Knicks in 2007.

Reportedly, Dolan still seeks the advice of Thomas, as when he decided to make a controversial trade for Carmelo Anthony in 2011 against the advice of coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Donnie Walsh. The Knicks' win-loss record has become worse, rather than better, since getting Anthony.

When it comes to the Knicks, it seems as if "the inmates have taken over the asylum." Owners, like everybody else, can be subject to personality disorders. Dolan has a history of drug abuse. In 1993, he underwent drug rehabilitation at the Hazelden clinic in Center City, Minn. A person has to be psychologically well-balanced to run a team, just as he does to coach or play for a team. Dolan has not demonstrated that kind of balance. The way he runs the team is akin to how dictators run countries.

When I analyze his management from a psychological point of view, what I see is a man with both anti-social and narcissistic features. In lay terms, he might be dubbed an egomaniac. He stubbornly makes one bad decision after another and refuses to listen to anybody who tells him what he doesn't want to hear. He seldom has press conferences, and when he does he only reads a statement and doesn't take questions. He makes all decisions, and if anybody questions him, he finds (as D'Antoni did) that it is either his way or the highway. People who are substance abusers are also prone to temper tantrums, mistreatment of those around them, and bad decisions, all of which Dolan has shown.

In my research on management techniques, I have found that managers can only learn constructive techniques of communication if they have personalities that are open to new learning. Dolan's apparent personality disorder prevents such learning. People with Dolan's character traits are not only convinced that they know best about everybody else, but also they know best about themselves. Hence, nobody can get through to them.

Anti-social and narcissistic personalities have not done well when they have entered therapy with me, and the literature backs that up. As a group they are resistant to psychological treatment. Their unwillingness to take in feedback and their feeling that they are superior to everyone else precludes doing well in therapy or in any situation involving another person's point of view.

Since owners of teams bear the responsibility for the complex operation of the team but also the welfare of those under them, they need to have not only and understanding of the sport and of management techniques, but also be emotionally well balanced. Therefore, I propose that maybe it would be a good idea for potential team owners to be required to take a qualification exam before being given a license to run a team.

Such a qualification exam would not only test their knowledge of the sport in which they would become involved and their understanding of management techniques, but also their psychological adjustment (sanity).

But that's an idea whose time will probably, unfortunately, never come.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology, and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.

Published by Gerald Schoenewolf

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D., is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York, an adjunct professor of psychology, and an author of 20 books of psychology, philosophy, fiction and poetry. He has also written 21 screen...  View profile