The best and most balanced obit for the Oakland Raiders’ Al Davis, who died Saturday, was by Bruce Weber in the New York Times. There is, however, a curious and unexplained line in the story: “Wherever the team called home, Oakland or Los Angeles, Mr. Davis was a fan favorite — until he wasn’t.”
Part of the explanation has to do with the word “extort.”
We don’t feel it’s necessary to recount Davis’s many accomplishments, and we grant that he was a “maverick,” for whatever that may be worth. High on the list of those accomplishments is bringing a Hispanic coach, Tom Flores, and a black coach, Art Shell, into the NFL. He was also the first owner to put a woman, Amy Trask, into an executive position.
But it also should be remembered that he was one nasty son of a bitch when a player crossed him. We’ll probably never know why he feuded with his great running back, Marcus Allen, unless Allen chooses to spill the beans. And Davis was an asshole to the end regarding the players’ union.
Now for the fans: When Al Davis wasn’t a “fan favorite” was in 1982, after he uprooted the Raiders from Oakland and moved them to LA. When he also wasn’t was in 1995, when, after establishing a fan base in L.A., he picked his team up again and moved them back to Oakland. That was the same year, you may recall, that the Rams moved to St. Louis, and Los Angeles, the second largest TV market in the country, was left without a professional football team.
Both times, Davis’s decision was based on what he could extort — I wish there was a nicer word for it, but in this case it fits — from the city fathers in the way of tax breaks and stadium rights.
NFL owners have always preached the virtues of the free market during the off-season, when they’re on the rubber- chicken circuit. But when it comes down to business they don’t want their players to be free agents but claim that right for themselves. Sorry, fans, it’s just business.
In Davis’s case, the self-interest carried an extra dollop of chutzpah. After the Raiders moved back to Oakland, he actually sued the NFL to keep the rights to the L.A. market. It wasn’t clear exactly what “rights” meant, but we know Davis’s aims. He wanted to keep the NFL from moving another team to Los Angeles so he could continue to sell more jerseys and other merchandise emblazoned with the Raiders’ distinctive black-and-silver. The league won the suit, but L.A. is still without an NFL team; the wised-up Angelenos have thus far refused to accommodate any potential owner with the promise of millions of tax dollars for a new stadium with luxury boxes, whose revenue goes directly into the owner’s pockets. (The last we heard, Ari Gold, Vincent Chase’s agent, was conniving to bring an expansion team to LA.)
As far as the players go, many of them profess their love for him, but we also know that Allen, who is still the team’s all-time rushing leader, chafed under Davis’s rule and wanted out. He finally got out in 1993 and became the comeback player of the year with the Raiders’ hated rival, the Kansas City Chiefs. Davis’s stance regarding the union was also harsh. When it came to negotiating with the players, Davis was the only owner to vote no on this year’s collective-bargaining-agreement, which ended the bitter lockout. (All 31 other owners voted for it, 31-0.)
Amidst all the tears and tributes, one testimonial deserves to stand out. Dan Rooney, son of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney and currently our ambassador to Ireland, once called him “a lying creep.” I know it doesn’t seem nice to speak so ill of the dead, but this is the man, after all, who encouraged players like Jack “They Call Me Assassin” Tatum to not merely win but to go out and maim their opponents.
And you know what? I don’t think Al Davis would have cared one whit what any of us said about him.