Deaths are supposed to be greeted with nothing but kind words for the deceased, but I’m guessing that the death of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has prompted quiet relief in NFL corporate and ownership circles, and a shrug of indifference elsewhere — except for the much-remarked “love-hate relationship” felt in Oakland and Los Angeles.
The Raiders last played in the Super Bowl in 2003; their previous appearance, in 1984, was the last one they won. From the outside, Davis has long seemed either a sad case — a deposed wizard brooding in the dungeon over impossible dreams of revenge — or a bad joke in his trademark black and silver, a bit like Hugh Hefner still wearing pajamas in public as if he still mattered.
Al Davis certainly once mattered. No one, not even Jerry Jones, had a greater impact on the state of the NFL today. Davis, you might say, made Jerry Jones possible. He also made Mike Brown, the anti-Jones, possible. Maybe someone else would eventually have challenged the NFL’s right to dictate by supermajority, but it was Davis who first defied the league and his fellow owners by announcing in January 1980 that he was moving the Raiders to Los Angeles without approval. Applause, applause, for the “renegade” defying Pete Rozelle and the smug monopolists — right?
Except for the small matter of what this meant for the community of Oakland. And Davis made those smug monopolists many times wealthier than they would have otherwise become, at the expense of ordinary citizens in cities like Baltimore, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Teams looking for better deals had moved before Davis did — the Cowboys from Dallas to Irving, the Rams from Los Angeles to Anaheim, the Patriots from Boston to Foxboro, the Giants from New York to the Meadowlands, the Lions from Detroit to Pontiac — but never outside the metropolitan area, and thus not leaving the locals wholly abandoned or needing league approval.
Within four years of the Supreme Court’s final ruling in Davis’s favor, the Colts literally stole out of Baltimore in the dead of night for Indianapolis, and the St. Louis Cardinals departed for Phoenix. Over the next several years, the Oilers abandoned Houston for Memphis, the Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore, and the Raiders, of course, returned to Oakland. Fans in the abandoned cities felt betrayed. The destination cities put up hundreds of millions of public dollars that might have gone to education or infrastructure (as did the cities that received expansion franchises in the 1990s). Several franchises stayed home only after extorting their own hundreds of millions. Mike Brown, for one, kept the Bengals in Cincinnati when the city came up with every dollar for a $300 million stadium. By then naming it after his father, rather than selling the naming rights, Brown has infuriated Jerry Jones and the other entrepreneurial owners, and made the sharing of local revenues a greater challenge. Praising Brown for putting sentiment above profit would be like praising Al Davis for being a populist rebel against corporate power. Franchise movement has settled, but its potential threat is still a huge asset for NFL owners. Thank Al Davis for that.
Apparently, with Davis everything was personal. Furious after not being named commissioner of the merged NFL-AFL in 1966, Davis became Pete Rozelle’s bitter enemy until Rozelle died. I long felt gratitude to Davis for supporting the players during their unsuccessful strikes in 1974, 1982, and 1987, but I suspect he did it chiefly to poke Rozelle in the eye. Not only was everything personal with Davis, he had to be the primary person — no Raider coach or player could appear more important to the franchise than he himself was. Himself a coach who somehow wrested a controlling ownership interest in the Raiders from Wayne Valley, Davis remained always coach, unable to let the guys he hired to patrol the sidelines do the actual coaching. This worked as long as Davis still had his coaching savvy. When he lost it, the Raiders nose-dived, with Davis dumping every new coach who started to succeed but got too much attention or wanted to do it his own way. All praise to Davis for hiring the first black coach, but hiring one of his loyal Raiders who would defer to him guaranteed that Art Shell would not succeed.
Meanwhile, Davis continued to vote against whatever the majority of owners wanted and sued the league routinely (and frivolously), as if for old time’s sake. Famous for taking castoffs and misfits, and transforming them into Raider champions, Davis was equally capable of utter ruthlessness if a player displeased him. Someone for whom everything is personal is capable of both extraordinary kindness and extraordinary pettiness.
This does not add up to a “complex” figure but a simple one whose interactions with a complex world inspired the “love-hate” relationships that journalists have invariably mentioned. Al Davis’s legacy to the NFL is “Raider Nation” and the billions in public subsidies that his defiance of his fellow owners in the 1980s won for all of them collectively. The great irony of his long career is that he failed to capitalize nearly as much as most owners did.