With an interminable two weeks to kill before the Super Bowl and little in the way of actual news to fill those days, we’re left to speculate about what will happen in the biggest game on the NFL calendar. And this year, that speculation centers on the delicious possibility that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell might have to hand the Lombardi Trophy to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft after the two sides spent months warring with each other over Deflategate.
We’ve seen this story before.
Deflategate was nothing compared with the battles waged between Raiders owner Al Davis and then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who clashed over numerous fronts for decades starting in the 1960s. By comparison, Deflategate was akin to a small-claims court case, the worst “Judge Judy” episode anyone has ever seen.
It all started when the NFL as we know it today was born after it merged with the competing American Football League in 1966. Davis was AFL commissioner at the time of the merger and while he wasn’t necessarily upset with the partnership — the old story that he wanted to be named commissioner of the new league probably isn’t totally true — he didn’t like that Rozelle was getting all of the credit for it.
“What is understandable is that Davis was infuriated by the perception, after the merger, that Rozelle had been the mastermind to broker the ultimate deal,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in “America’s Game,” his excellent 2004 history of the NFL. “His own resentment of the NFL, and his increasing sense of paranoia over the league being ‘out to get’ the Raiders, dated at least as far back as 1970, when he objected to the schedule the club was given.”
The battle lines drawn, Davis freely and openly cultivated the team’s renegade image and made enemies on and off the field, with the Raiders-Steelers feud of the 1970s a big part of it. After a particularly brutal 1976 season opener in which Raiders defensive back George Atkinson cheap-shotted Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann with a forearm to the back of the head, Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll told reporters that Atkinson represented a “criminal element” in the league. Atkinson sued Noll for slander in a lawsuit sponsored by Davis, who feared that Rozelle and the league’s longtime owners like the Rooney family were attempting to take down his team. At one point in what turned out to be a rather absurd 10-day trial, Rozelle was forced to testify in open court that he had never conspired with the Rooneys to hurt Davis and the Raiders. (In the end, the jury needed just four hours to find that Noll did not slander Atkinson.)
Davis crafted the team that finally broke through with a Super Bowl XI win in January 1976. Four years later, however, he announced his intention to move the team from Oakland to Los Angeles after the civic owners of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum offered Davis what he felt were unfriendly lease terms. The league’s owners, who had to approve of any move, voted against the move in a 22-0-5 vote at which Davis was not present. In response, Davis joined a lawsuit filed against the league by Los Angeles Coliseum Commission — which had hoped to lure the Raiders to that stadium to replace the Rams (who had decamped to Anaheim) — alleging that the league’s rules on relocation were an unfair restraint of trade, a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
While all that was going on, the still-in-Oakland Raiders were again making a Super Bowl run during the 1980-81 season, earning a spot in Super Bowl XV against the favored Philadelphia Eagles and setting up the possibility that Rozelle would have to hand the Lombardi Trophy to Davis. The NFL’s commissioner did not exactly savor that opportunity and poured gasoline on the league’s feud with Davis two days before the game.
“From a practical viewpoint, the Raiders being in the Super Bowl makes it all the more unconscionable to have the Raiders leave Oakland,” Rozelle said, according to MMQB’s Peter King.
And so of course, the Raiders scored a 27-10 victory over the Eagles to become the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. Dave Anderson of the New York Times was in the victorious locker room afterward to detail how Rozelle employed a neat bit of ceremonial jujitsu so his enemy could not claim victory.
“Then the commissioner handed the trophy to Al Davis with both hands, thereby avoiding the possible embarrassment of Al Davis’s not being willing to shake hands with him,” Anderson wrote.
You can see it for yourself in this blurry clip from after the game. Davis makes his appearance at about the two-minute mark.
Said former Raiders executive Mike Ornstein, in a chat with King: “That Super Bowl Sunday day was interesting. I was walking with [Davis] to the stage, for the presentation, and he said at one point, ‘Damn, this is going to be fun.’ I don’t know if Al ever looked at Pete. He took the trophy, turned away, held up the trophy, and I think he said, ‘Just win, baby.’ … Really, that was a much more contentious battle than this one between the Patriots and the league. It was a war. That was a great win for the Raiders. The smile on his face was ear to ear.”
The Raiders were champions again three years later after another upset, this one a 38-9 decimation of the Washington Redskins. And once again, Rozelle had to grit his teeth and hand the Lombardi Trophy to Rozelle. This time, there was a handshake. (Davis makes his appearance about three minutes into this clip.)
Rozelle announced his retirement as NFL commissioner in March 1989 at the league owners’ meetings in California. The announcement stunned the league’s owners, but perhaps more surprising was Davis’s reaction, as told by MacCambridge:
On his way out the door to the press conference in an adjacent room, he was interrupted by Al Davis, who embraced him and wished him the best of luck. Years later, owners and others in Rozelle’s inner circle were still arguing about whether Davis’s gesture was a heartfelt act of reconciliation or merely a pose of Machiavellian utility. Some never could decide. “Al Davis is going to do what’s best for Al Davis,” allowed Tex Schramm. “On the other hand, he is a sentimental person.”
But Amy Trask, for one, thinks Davis’s embrace was genuine. Trask wasn’t with the team for any of the early-’80s trophy presentations but she spent years working with Davis, becoming team’s chief executive starting in 1997 (Rozelle died in 1996, Davis passed away in 2011).
“I was with the organization when Al and Pete embraced at the owners’ meeting at which Pete announced his retirement,” she wrote in an email to The Post. “That embrace surprised many, as the dispute and litigation between the league and the Raiders (as to the Raiders’ right to relocate from Oakland to Los Angeles) was ferocious and intense. But as heated and fierce as that fight was, Al and Pete shared a love of the league and that shared love of the league led to that spontaneous embrace.”
Perhaps Roger Goodell and Robert Kraft will get there at some point, with time eroding the ire that Deflategate wrought. But chances are, with bad memories and Tom Brady’s four-game suspension still fresh in everyone’s mind, it won’t be on the podium should the Patriots beat the Falcons on Sunday. A handshake — or if history is any indication, the lack of one — will have to do.