When I was doing my book tour for Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, I always had a joke in my back pocket about Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis that never failed to generate a laugh. I said that kids in Oakland wake up screaming in the middle of the night saying, “Al Davis is coming to get me!” It was a play on Davis's intimidating all-black wardrobe, his craggy visage, and the futility of the Oakland franchise. I said he looked “like the Crypt-Keeper.” I would then use the joke as a bridge to comment that Davis should make parents scream as well because the Oakland Raiders soak Alameda County taxpayers to the tune of $20 million a year. I quoted stadium expert Neil DeMause at fieldofschemes.com, who wrote, “the total public cost of bringing back the Raiders (as of 2003 was) $201 million, plus the mutilation of a once-attractive baseball stadium.”
I pointed out that Davis also sued the city for hundreds of millions of dollars for mismanaging the property and was awarded another $34 million. Lastly, I raised the way Davis really wrote the blueprint for other owners in how to play one city off against another when he moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland, in a search for public cash. After I made the joke on The Rachel Maddow Show, I received the following email:
“As a teen, I spent several years at Al's house, as his son Mark and I have been close friends for 30 plus years. [Al's] door was always open to us kids, and no matter how rowdy or obnoxious, he kept a watchful eye on us. Look, I know the guy is controversial to those who don't know him, but I have seen first hand how much he can be just a dad, and a good guy… not the monster the press always portrays. I'd appreciate it if you kept your comments to his actions, and didn't mock his personal appearance (due to obviously ailing health) to make a point. He seems fair game, but I can tell you this sort of thing can get to people, even when they are Al Davis the icon.”
Needless to say, I felt awful and apologized to the person that I used a cheap joke at the expense of an ailing man to make my point. I also had to admit that my accounting of Davis wasn't by any means a fair and full portrait. As has been written extensively in every obituary since Davis’s death last week, the man was undoubtedly a trailblazer. He was the first owner in the NFL to hire an African American head coach, Art Shell, and the first owner to hire a Latino coach in Tom Flores. He also hired a woman, Amy Trask as the first-ever female CEO of an NFL team. Davis hounded the suits at NFL Inc. earning all the right enemies among his ownership peers.
In addition, Davis took chances on players demonized in the press and ostracized from the league. It was the team of last resort for people like Lyle Alzado, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett, and many more. All of these players resurrected their careers in the silver and black. Clearly the emotion on the Raiders sideline last weekend, as they beat the Houston Texans 25-20, is also testament to Davis's connection with his wayward team and coaching staff. It takes a hard soul to not quiver as Coach Hue Jackson bent over and sobbed as safety Michael Huff's interception in the end zone secured the team's victory. Fittingly many of the players Davis was maligned for choosing, like wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey, kicker Sebastian Janikowski (who tied an NFL record with three field goals of over 50 yards) and the much-maligned Huff, were the stars of the day.
Yet the tributes to Davis can't leave out the aforementioned damage done to Alameda County, as he constantly looked to take more money for a franchise that has not come close to returning on its investment. In 2005, when Davis signed a five-year lease extension with Alameda County, he darkly threatened to leave town, saying, “There are a lot of cities out there who are just waiting, just waiting to raise their hand and say, 'We're interested [in an NFL team] … And the numbers that they'll pay are very great. You saw it happen in Houston. They built a brand new stadium. You saw it happen in Cleveland when they lost the Browns to Baltimore. Brand new stadium. Big, modern edifices… I realize [the price to taxpayers] can't be too high, but whatever it is, you've got to think of the quality of life that we bring to the community, that baseball brings to the community, that basketball brings to the community.”
These words are being said today by the Spanos family that owns the San Diego Chargers and Zygi Wilf who owns the Minnesota Vikings, as they play cities against each other in a play for public cash. Even a modest look at urban poverty shows what a disaster these stadiums are, leaving little but a scant collection of low-pay, no benefit jobs in their wake.
Davis may not have been the “Crypt-Keeper” caricature. But he also wasn't the saint in the city sportswriters are portraying him as in the aftermath of his passing. Behind the dark shades and leather jackets, he was the NFL owner who was as much urban raider as Oakland Raider. In 2008, I tried to interview Davis and emailed him one question and one question alone: “Since you're getting so much taxpayer money, does the public perhaps have a right to partial public ownership of the team?” I never received an answer.
Any honest look as the legacy of this NFL titan needs to reckon with the way Al Davis magically turned public money into private wealth, and laid a blueprint for other far less charismatic owners to follow.
Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Contact him at email@example.com.