After 20 years of mutual adoration, the present relationship between Raiders owner Al Davis and Oakland has the ugly, spiteful texture of a tumultuous divorce. Ever since it became public knowledge that Davis would move the winningest franchise of the past two decades to Los Angeles, the air has been thick with accusations of bad faith, abandonment, inadequate support and exploitation.
In what will probably be its last good chance to recover the Raiders, Oakland, the jilted partner, will contend Monday before California Superior Court Judge Nat Aglinano in Salinas that the city has a right to condemn the Raiders as important public property and purchase the team from Davis at a price determined by the court. Davis calls such an eminent domain contention outrageously un-American.
When Aglinano opens the trial, it will be the most recent in a series of legal and spiritual disputes involving Oakland, Davis and Davis' arch rival, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The bitterness of these battles surfaced almost three years ago.
On Oct. 5, 1980, the Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of humiliating the Raiders when Oakland quarterback Dan Pastorini fell to the sod, seriously injured. The fans at Oakland's Alameda Stadium wasted no time in reacting. They booed, as if Pastorini had broken an interception record rather than his leg.
Those who were there that day say the crowd's reaction had little to do with Pastorini. More likely, it was a collective venting of frustration and anger against Davis who had decided to move the team south to Los Angeles after his efforts to expand and improve the stadium failed.
Six weeks later the protest was more organized. At a Monday night game against the Broncos, fans refused to take their seats until five minutes after kickoff. ABC's cameras flashed on placards reading "Save Our Raiders."
"What garbage," Davis said. "If the stadium had supported us then, this never would have happened."
Although Jim Plunkett replaced Pastorini and led the team to its second NFL championship with a victory over the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Davis held fast to his decision to move the Raiders to the more spacious Los Angeles Coliseum and one of the country's most lucrative markets.
Since then, Rozelle and the NFL have lost two major legal efforts in Los Angeles courts to force the Raiders back to Oakland. A year ago, a jury found that the NFL violated the Sherman Antitrust Act when it tried to prevent the Raiders from relocating. The NFL may have to pay as much as $60 million in damages to the Raiders. An appeals decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is due later this year.
Attempts to pass congressional legislation that would move the team back north stalled in committee in 1982. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and others will try to revive a "major league sports community protection act" during this congressional session.
But the eminent domain effort is likely to be Davis' biggest worry. "I think my problem is that I never gave this trial too much credibility," Davis said. "I just don't understand it. If United Airlines wanted to move, would they condemn them, too? I don't know what to expect. But anytime you walk into a courtroom you're vulnerable. Sooner or later the NFL'll win one. If this is their day, fine. But they won't win in the end."
Oakland's attorney and former city manager David Self will argue that the team should be condemned and purchased by the city for the public good. If Aglinano rules in the city's favor, he will determine how much money the city must pay for the public ownership of the franchise before returning it to Oakland. The Raiders claim the team is worth $100 million.
Davis, represented by Moses Zasky and Joseph Alioto, the former mayor of San Francisco, argued in the antitrust suits that Davis, as a businessman, had every right to relocate and that the NFL acted in bad faith in their efforts to keep the team in Oakland. In this hearing, the Raiders will contend that the rule of eminent domain is being misapplied.
Patrick Lynch, an attorney who represented the NFL in the Los Angeles trials, said, "I wake every morning and think Al Davis must mark off another day on his calendar with a smile, knowing he is becoming more entrenched in Los Angeles. He is a singularly difficult individual.
"I think even he would agree that the relationship between Oakland and the Raiders was almost unique in sports. It compares to Green Bay and the Packers. That kind of attachment will never develop in Los Angeles. The league is committed to the principle of supporting Oakland. And Oakland's romance with Al Davis is over."
Alioto views the Raiders' adversary to be not so much Oakland as Pete Rozelle and the NFL. "They want to keep Al Davis relegated to an inferior stadium for the rest of his life," Alioto said. "If they win this eminent domain case, Pete Rozelle would get to handpick the next owner of the Raiders, and that would put Al Davis out of football forever. That's exactly what Rozelle wants." Alioto accused Rozelle of running a dirty tricks campaign.
"The city of Oakland could never have done this without the help of the National Football League and Pete Rozelle," Davis said. "Who the hell else could have done this?"
Lynch, in support of the NFL, said, "The question has nothing to do with personalities. It is whether one owner in an organization of 28 can decide to move out of a city that has supported him for years without so much as a single phone call."
The football fans in Oakland, in the eyes of many, lost more than a football franchise when the Raiders left for Los Angeles.
"Oakland, for so many years, was San Francisco's ugly sister," said Oakland Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse. "San Francisco is the charming city with cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, and then there's Oakland across the bay. Deer come down from the hills in Oakland, and there are beautiful places here, but 'there's no there there,' according to Gertrude Stein. But then the Raiders made Oakland great. This is a football town. The fans never booed them, not once, until Davis decided to move."
The Tribune recently took a poll on whether the city wanted the Raiders back in Oakland; 1,419 voted yes, 135 no. "The Raiders had sellouts for 12 straight years and they'd sell out again, even with Al Davis," Newhouse said.
Friday night at the Raiders' old stadium, the Oakland A's played the Seattle Mariners on a cool, windy night, a temperature reminiscent of a far more brutal sport. As Rickey Henderson stood at the plate, Oakland firefighter Ernie Robinson looked on and said, "When the Raiders left, I felt hurt, let down. Al Davis is a businessman and he went for the money. I guess people will support the Invaders, but it's not the same."
Oakland's USFL franchise, the Invaders, is proving one of the new league's most successful. Invaders owner Tad Taube opposes the eminent domain argument, saying, "Oakland has a football team," but Robinson is right, no one really thinks it's the same.
"I don't know," said Robinson's wife Wanetta. "I guess they did what they thought was best."
But Wanetta Robinson, who used to be an active part of Oakland's Sundays as a Raiderette, was doing little cheering for a popular team that may never return. The divorce of Oakland and the Raiders could be permanent.