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The Return of Al Davis

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Al Davis made his return to the national sports spotlight last week when he fired head coach Lane Kiffin "for cause." Although Davis is accustomed to issuing final and binding edicts, his latest tantrum will be reviewed -- and ultimately reversed - by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Davis was trying to save some money -- $3.5 million to be exact - by claiming Kiffin breached his contract by lying, "bringing disgrace to the organization" and "leaking information to the press." If Kiffin was disloyal, that would have been a venal sin in the Davis empire. For a new generation of NFL devotees, this was their introduction to a man who, together with his arch rival Pete Rozelle, shaped the modern sports business.

Al Davis was always a genuine maverick. An aggressive and moody wanderer in search of respect, power and the most lucrative 100 yards of dirt and grass around, Davis aspired to play football, but he was too small and skinny. At age 21, the recent graduate of Syracuse University decided he would become a football coach, although he had never played for the Orangemen. He talked his way into a series of assistant coach positions, then jumped to the pro ranks with the fledgling Oakland franchise in the new American Football League. Davis would make Oakland as famous in football circles as Gertrude Stein did in poetry readings and Jack London in fiction.

Davis came into his own, first as a head coach and then as the potentate of the franchise. His pirate Raiders, originally made up of rejects, misfits and scoundrels, became the elite club in what had become America's game in the 1970s, professional football. He wanted players who would be as reckless and angry on the field as he was off the field. To remake the Raiders, Davis reached out to sign college players before their eligibility had expired in clear violation of NCAA rules. He traded for football apostates who he remolded as Raiders. Before the merger, he stole NFL players for his AFL club. He dominated, manipulated and motivated his franchise; he fired or cut those who proved disloyal and reshaped the club as aggressive outsiders that would win it all.

His battle with Kiffin is nothing compared with his war with Rozelle. Smooth as silk, Rozelle was a confident charmer while Davis was an insecure, anti-hero, and even self-loathing dominator. Davis v. Rozelle would reshape professional football. The Los Angeles Coliseum, having lost its main tenant, the Los Angeles Rams, to a newer stadium down the freeway in Anaheim, bid Davis to leave the Bay area for the 1980 season, offering a $15 million low-interest loan for stadium improvements plus a four million dollar relocation fee. Davis agreed, but the National Football League owners voted 22-0 to refuse to schedule any games against the Raiders if they were to be held in Los Angeles. (Ironically, the motion to deny Davis the right to relocate was made by Art Modell, then an NFL insider and later a franchise free agent himself when he moved his Browns to Baltimore.) Davis publicly insulted the intelligence of his fellow club owners in an interview with the New York Times: "Not all of them are the brightest of human beings." Rozelle announced that every franchise of both leagues will remain in its present location. Davis stayed in Oakland for a year and won Super Bowl XV. Rozelle presented the Vince Lombardi trophy to Davis in the locker room after the game. He used both hands, in this way avoiding shaking Davis' hand.

Just as Davis would teach his defensive backs to play "bump and run" on receivers, he would blindside the entire gaggle of NFL owners in federal court, claiming that the NFL's by-law 4.3, which required a three-quarter majority of owners to approve a club's relocation, was an antitrust violation. Davis triumphed in court and on appeal, making millions in the process, then formally moved his franchise to Los Angeles and then back again to Oakland. For Al Davis, it was winning the game that counted, "Just Win, Baby." Al Davis thrived on the battle.

Davis's antitrust suit against the NFL was the litigation of a personal vendetta against Pete Rozelle, a blatant abuse of the legal system. The litigation caused the NFL to lose control of its brand, and the freed owners began to play the game of franchise free agency with a vengeance. NFL stalwarts became gun-shy after l'affair Davis, and they watched as other owners moved at will from Baltimore to Indianapolis, from St. Louis to Phoenix, from Los Angeles to St. Louis, from Cleveland to Baltimore, and from Houston to Nashville. Loyal fans paid the price of the unregulated marketplace, not only for the increased cost of tickets that would reflect the booty paid to owners for bringing their shows to town, but also for the extortion paid to avoid losing their beloved teams when other towns raised the ante. The marketplace is never fair.

In recent years, Davis has made an effort to assure others that rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. One would hope that he might have mellowed, but Davis never seemed comfortable, even with success. Changing coaches eight times in fourteen years, Davis has proven that he remains the head Raider, fully in charge, although the years have taken their toll. Others will have to evaluate Lane Kiffin's performance as a head coach and Commissioner Goodell will have to make things right, but Davis's longstanding "Commitment to Excellence" has decayed along with his ball club. Understandably, Oakland fans would be far more interested in seeing excellence on the field than petulance in the board room.