As punishment for saying those naughty things about the high mucketymucks of pro football, Al Davis has been fined. No one is saying how deep the Oakland Raiders' boss will have to dig into his pockets to satisfy Pete Rozelle's lust for dignity. The guess is $5,000 worth. The cost of free speech is going up.
Rozelle, the highest muckety in the National Football League, stood in the bright lights of a press conference this afternoon, doing his best to defend the honor of his zebras, those men in black-and-white stripes who blow the whistles every Sunday.
The officials botched a call that might have beaten the Raiders in Denver two weeks ago. They said the Broncos did not fumble on the Raiders' two-yard line. Television replays clearly showed a fumble, with-Oakland recovering. Denver scored on the next play and eventually won, 20-17, moving into Sunday's Super Bowl.
Davis didn't like it. But he gage the officials credit for being human and said a mistake's a mistake and lets forget it. What Davis couldn't tolerate, he said, was the NFL's explanation of the unfumble. He said they made it up. He said the NFL people in the press box, including Rozelle, decided that the runner's forward progress had been stopped before the ball came loose. Davis said the NFL then distributed the "phony" explanation. "The big lie," he called it. "The same thing happened in Vietnam."
Davis believed that. He said it several times in the Oakland locker room. He said to to anybody taking notes. He said it slowly and distinctly. He knew what he was doing.
And if he went one step too far in accusting the NFL of concocting its unfumble explanation, Davis was right in raising the issue.
The NFL's official blew the call on the field.
Then Rozelle blew the explanation.
Today the commission admitted it. The explanation was "misleading," he said, adding a few minutes later, "Our statement was inaccurate."
It was simply sloppy reporting. The explanation was obtained fourth-hand. No one ever talked to the official who made the call.
Rozelle admitted it today.
And he's fining Al Davis?
According to Rozelle, the explanation came this way: He sent an assistant to field level, where the assistant talked to an alternate official who called over two game officials. Those two explained - guessed? - what yet a third official had called. Rozelle's assistant then returned to the press box, assuming everyone knew what they were talking about.
A journalism adage: Never assume anything except a 4 1/4 per cent mortgage. The proper explanation, given by Ruzelle today, is that the official simply didn't see the fumble, so he couldn't let Oakland keep the ball.
It was a mistake, Rozelle said, to keep reporters away from game officials that day. The implication was that the official would have set everyone straight. The fact is, when newspapermen reached the official two days later, he did nothing of the sort, instead standing behind the commissioner's crock.Protect thy protector.
Rozelle and his minions do astonishing work in the name of integrity. Never has an NFL official been suspected of any mischief beyong incompetence. The commissioner's confession of error today is further evidence of his devotion to an apple-pie holiness. The game is better for it.
The troubling aspect is that Rozelle would have seen a need to leap into print with an explanation of a controversial call even while the game is in progress. He said he did it in response to reporters' demands. Why not, though, let the official defend himself/ We are constantly remainded of the officials' common sense. Yet Rozelle, perhaps driven to distraction by television instant-replays that have shown officiating mistakes, now seems defensive about his zebras. The Denver-Oakland flap was Rozelle's creation, an admitted mistake, but when Al Davis growsed about it, he's find a pile of money.
Davis, by telephone from his home at Piedmont, Calif., said he planned to talk to Rozelle about the fine.
"I wasn't saying the explanation was contrived or that it was done maliciously," the Raiders' managing general partner said. "It might have been an honest misrepresentation. But to be real honest, I still don't understand the explanation."
One of the things Davis doesn't understand is the implication that none of the officials saw the fumble. Had any official seen it, it was his responsibility to report it to the referee. That was not done. Yet Davis said today, "If they say the six officials didn't see it, they're wrong.One did come over and tell John Madden (the Raiders' coach) he saw the fumble."
Rozelle in defending the offending official, said he watched the play on film from six differnt angles.
"Four of the six did not show the fumble," he said. And he said, "The official was just screened off and didn't see it . . . It-s understandable how they could be screened off by those 260-pounders. I can't blame them, I just can't blame them."
It woudl have saved Al Davis some spending money if Rozelle had said that two weeks ago.