[originally published 10/11/11 at http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Flowery_Al_Davis_Tributes_Downplay_Dark_Side_of_His_Oakland_and_Raiders_Legacy_9590.html]
by Irvin Muchnick
It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, and to be sure, Al Davis – the Oakland Raiders’ owner who died Saturday at 82 – was a colorful figure whose dark side is easy to gloss over for the media types who too often serve as ruling-class stenographers. At the peak of his powers, he had a brilliant football mind, and he raised business ruthlessness to an art form. He also was intermittently droll, a quality that should not be devalued.
The Chronicle’s Scott Ostler quoted Howie Long, the Raiders’ Hall of Famer who is now a television analyst, about the time he failed to get his grandmother, who had cancer, into the right hospital in Boston for treatment – until he enlisted Davis, who called back “20 minutes later” to say he’d secured the bed.
Yeah, right, not a second more than 1,200. The story recited house history about how everyone considered “a true Raider” had Davis’s “absolute loyalty.” Apparently Dave Pear, a member of the 1980 Raiders Super Bowl champions who now leads the community of retired players who were screwed by the National Football League’s penurious pension and disability plan, didn’t make the cut.
(Of course, the Raiders hardly enjoy a Bay Area monopoly on pro football executive callous: The 49ers never paid dime one of the seven-figure medical bills of George Visger, a member of the 1981 champs who had emergency brain surgery shortly after the Super Bowl, followed by dozens of other operations and ongoing health issues in the decades since.)
In 1995, as the Raiders prepared to play their first game back here after a 13-year absence, my then second-grade son and I were at a barbecue at the home of a school friend in another part of Berkeley. All the other adults, perhaps half of whom were career civil servants in the governments of Berkeley and the neighboring Oakland, were uniformly enthusiastic about the return of the NFL. My contribution to cocktail chatter was an observation that taxpayers of a beleaguered city shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing a football team. I might as well have been advocating the abolition of rent control and the quadrupling of DMV fees.
Three years later I took both my young sons to Jon Gruden’s first home game as the Raiders’ coach. The walk-up ticket windows were woefully understaffed, and as we waited in the single long line we could hear the roar of the crowd reacting to Napoleon Kaufman’s long touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. By the time we were settled in our seats, the first quarter was over. The crowd’s notorious rowdiness further ensured that it would be the last pro football game I have attended in person.
As is well known, the Raiders broke the hearts of their Northern California fans by moving to the Los Angeles Coliseum (and registering the most recent of their three Super Bowl wins while there), and at the time of his death Davis was still claiming territorial rights in the Southland for an actual or threatened second exodus. Sportswriters and columnists respectfully emphasized his persona as the Tiresias of the gridiron, but were not nearly as diligent in noting that he was arguably the biggest civic thief in East Bay history.
The “improvements” to the Oakland Coliseum to get Davis to reverse his original jilting turned a multi-purpose stadium already suffering from a deficit in baseball atmosphere into a rock-bottom mausoleum. The city and Alameda County got fleeced to the tune of scores of millions; a corporate and individual-income base in no position to support it faced one of the pioneering models of the scam now familiarly known as PSL’s (“personal seat licenses”). Enough low-lives, however,.regularly dug deep enough for individual game tickets to lower the quality of the Raider fan experience, both on the parking lot and inside the stadium (though not enough to prevent one of the NFL’s lowest rates of home sellouts, and thus highest rates of local TV blackouts of games).
For all this on-again, off-again pseudo-fealty, Davis and his Raiders sold the myth that their franchise was some kind of community treasure.
Davis, who owned a mansion in Piedmont, died of “undisclosed causes” at his home of late, “a hotel near the Oakland airport,” the Chronicle said. Tom FitzGerald, the lead byline on the obit, told me, “I agree readers would like to know the cause of death. If we get anything on that, we’ll report it. But, as you know, the Raiders are a very secretive organization. I’m not holding my breath that they will disclose that information.”