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Volume 22 No. 49
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Owners recall contributions of the NFL's rebel

The NFL had a love-hate relationship with the late Al Davis. The Oakland Raiders owner transformed his team into one of sports’ iconic brands and changed how the game was played, but he also was a litigious and persistent thorn in the league’s side.

One national reporter recalled Davis, with the aid of a walker, shuffling by at an owners meeting a few years ago as the reporter interviewed an NFL executive. And the league nemesis rasped unsolicited, “They keep lying, and you keep writing.”

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay recounted Davis’ battles in the 1980s, the peak of his litigious era with the league, when he sued to move his team to Los Angeles. Once, Irsay said, Davis left an owners meeting room for five minutes, and one of his many antagonists, Dallas Cowboys President and general manager Tex Schramm, pushed through some disagreed-on motion in his absence.

“Al returned, and he was furious,” Irsay said, laughing.

The story was one of many anecdotes shared last week by owners as they gathered in Houston for their fall meeting. Davis died Oct. 8 at age 82.

Al Davis at Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 (top) and on his induction to the Hall of Fame in 2003
While many owners had a bone to pick with Davis, they also conceded he did much for the NFL — and not only by making the Raiders a pre-eminent brand. He fought for openness and transparency in the league office, once accusing former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue of having a secret slush fund — an accusation never proved.

Under Davis, the Raiders refused to be part of the NFL Internet Network, which meant that unlike the league’s other clubs, NFL headquarters could not access the team’s emails. Many would call that typical Raiders paranoia; others might privately admire the team’s rebelliousness. (It’s why even current Raiders team email addresses don’t have “NFL” in them but most other clubs’ email addresses do.)

“Some of his views were important and needed to be embraced,” Irsay said. “The power each of us should hold in the league and the rights that we hold and the right to have full disclosure and to guard against things in terms of favoritism, perceived or real — he fought against these things.”

Davis, with the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, both enlightened and angered his fellow owners.
What others said

“He’s made such a difference in the league in promoting people and promoting their contributions to the game. That’s something that probably isn’t talked enough about.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, on NFL Network’s “NFL Gameday Morning”

“It’s clear he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of football history.”
Peter King, Sports Illustrated NFL writer
“Al Davis was an American original. He deserves to be long remembered, not because he was a model, but because he mattered. … We will not see his like again.”
Bob Costas, NBC commentator
“His way redefined the sport in so many ways. Neither the Raiders nor the NFL will be the same without him.”
San Francisco Chronicle editorial

“Al Davis was a great American sports villain, the best of his time, the best of all time.”
Joe Posnanski, Sports Illustrated columnist
“Never was there a more iconic and enduring symbol of a business. Not Oprah Winfrey, not Steve Jobs. Not George Halas or Bill Walsh or Bob Knight. Not even Davis’ good friend, George Steinbrenner.”
Monte Poole, Oakland Tribune
“He deserves every piece of credit for the team’s spectacular achievements (five Super Bowl appearances, three victories) and its immense failures (the fitful wreckage and non-winning seasons since 2003). … Davis did not merely have the final say on everything. He had the only say.”
Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News

— Compiled from SportsBusiness Daily

At the league’s annual meeting, reporters could count on Davis, smart as a whip, to hold court, unscheduled, on all matter of topics, a long-winding, quasi-press conference journalists dubbed “The State of the Al.”

Some owners last week recalled Davis’ often-unseen soft side. New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said his dad, the late Robert Tisch (who previously co-owned the team), attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., around the same time as Davis. The Raiders boss would always ask the younger Tisch once he took over his father’s ownership stake how his mother was faring, the Giants owner said smiling.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, whose father, Lamar Hunt, founded the American Football League — of which Davis’ Raiders were an original member — cited Davis’ tenure in 1966 as AFL commissioner as his greatest contribution to the NFL.

“As commissioner of the league and escalating the war with the NFL, which I think contributed to the NFL’s willingness to merge with the AFL,” Hunt said, “to me that was the most important thing he did business-wise in his 50 years with the league.”

Still, it was hard to avoid the raw feelings Davis engendered, even in the wake of his death. Davis sued the league and other teams multiple times, including over relocating his team to Los Angeles and whether the Raiders or the NFL controlled that market. He once helped his own player, George Atkinson, sue Chuck Noll for slander after the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach, enraged over an Atkinson hit on Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, spoke of a criminal element in the NFL. Atkinson lost the 1977 decision, but the trial deeply embarrassed the league.

“I had some disdain, like we all did, on some of the things he did as a partner,” Irsay said. “It is a conflicted kind of situation in terms of his character on what he did and some of the things that were good and not so good.”

Davis had one last jab at the league recently by abstaining from the vote on the new collective-bargaining agreement, robbing the NFL of being able to boast that the owners had unanimously approved it. The team never fully explained. Asked soon after the July 21 vote why the Raiders had not approved, New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a crucial labor negotiator, just smiled and said, as if the answer was self-explanatory, “It’s the Raiders.”

This sportsman knew the value of people

I had the honor of knowing Al Davis for more than 35 years, and the most important characteristic that stood out to me was his understanding that sports is a people business. Whether it was befriending people to accumulate knowledge and information or developing relationships within his organization, Al knew the value of people. He researched everyone he met. He was Google before there was a Google. The Raiders were a family business that truly was a “family.” As staff, players, coaches or especially alumni, you were a Raider for life. In addition to his color blindness (visually and socially), it was one characteristic he had in common with Pete Rozelle.

The Raiders were successful winners in two of the first five Super Bowls I was in charge of planning. I learned from the emphasis that Al placed on accommodating his players’ and coaches’ needs (with special attention to their families) how important that was toward winning … and also success in the Super Bowl. For years, I spoke to Super Bowl participants about his philosophy and how it affected play on the field. He once called me the night of the event to ensure that I got “great” seats for the mother of one of his players to a Frank Sinatra concert at Super Bowl XVIII. He caused me to rethink and change what the league covered in costs and in making arrangements for all Super Bowls after 1984. There became an emphasis to find events for the coaches’ and players’ families to attend.

At Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, Al came to me on Saturday before the game and wanted to move his suite because he believed that sitting in the corner of the stadium gave him a better view of the game than sitting on the 50-yard line. Now think about moving suites at the Super Bowl on 24 hours notice, that was Al’s focus.

He was a unique figure and reviled as much as revered. Others have tried to compare him to other individuals, but he was truly one of a kind.

Jim Steeg is director of the Pac-12 Football Championship Game, and former COO of the San Diego Chargers and senior vice president of events for the NFL.