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Friday, October 14, 2011
Commitment to honesty

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Al Davis
Al Davis was an immortal contributor to the National Football League. But he was also mortal, leaving behind a legacy of both accomplishment and troubling behavior.

As you pass the casket at Maori funerals in New Zealand, you are encouraged to speak frankly to the dead man, sometimes even mentioning his faults, right out loud.

With all due respect to his life and legacy, I think we need a funeral like that for recently departed Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis -- a man I covered since I was 25.

Yes, Al Davis, 82, was a color-blind genius who changed the game. He was an original with guts and vision who "belongs on the pro football version of Mount Rushmore" (Adam Schefter, ESPN).

But somebody needs to come along and mention: He was about as warm as Rushmore granite, too. Utterly single-minded, he was a selfish egocentric who only liked you if you could help him. Mostly, Davis had all the charm of C. Montgomery Burns.

Yes, Al Davis' life should be celebrated. He was a maverick and an innovator, "the brains behind the AFL-NFL merger, the curator of the downfield passing game" (Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times).

But let's be sure to add: As ahead of the curve as he was in the '70s and '80s, he was that far behind in the last two decades. Davis had three winning seasons in the last 16. He was exactly like those Members Only jackets he wore -- fashionable once, dreadfully dated forever after.

Yes, Al Davis believed in "A Commitment to Excellence." Yet he didn't demand it in himself. The facilities he put his teams in were among the shabbiest in the NFL.

Yes, Al Davis "was what all Raiders fans identified with" (SBNation.com).

And the rest of the league has had to live with them ever since. A Raiders jersey or jacket became gang uniform in Oakland and L.A. "The Black Hole" at Oakland games is about as disgusting a place as you can find. YouTube is lousy with guys in Raiders jerseys throwing haymakers. Now, there's talk that Davis' oldest son, Mark, may sell the Raiders to Philip Anschutz, who would move the team to Los Angeles. After what happened at Dodgers Stadium this year, you want to bring a thug element that would make Dodgers fans look like Our Gang? Better barricade I-5.

Yes, Al Davis had a "great eye for spotting talent" (SFExaminer.com), rescuing Jim Plunkett after the San Francisco 49ers waived him in 1977 and signing 13 Hall of Famers.

He was also the guy who spent a first-overall choice on QB JaMarcus Russell, the most booming bust in NFL history. Yet Davis fired his coach, Lane Kiffin, for choking at having Russell crammed down his throat. Davis mocked Kiffin for wanting to draft WR Calvin Johnson instead. Today, Russell is out of football and Johnson leads the NFL in touchdowns.

Yes, Al Davis was "infallibly loyal to his players and officials: to be a Raider was to be a Raider for life" (AP).

Except when he'd turn on them. He hired a former Raiders assistant, Tom Cable, as head coach, then fired him in 2010, the sixth coach he'd fired in nine seasons. He fired Mike Shanahan and never paid the remaining $250,000 on his contract. He fired Kiffin after less than two seasons and tried to weasel out on what remained of Kiffin's $6 million deal. He benched Hall of Fame RB Marcus Allen for two years for no other reason than jealousy, inspiring fans to wear "Free Marcus" T-shirts. Allen sued, then became the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in Kansas City. Prince of a guy, Al Davis.

Yes, Al Davis believed in "A Commitment to Excellence."

Yet he didn't demand it in himself. The facilities he put his teams in were among the shabbiest in the NFL. I covered the world champ '83 L.A. Raiders at an abandoned elementary school in El Segundo. I can remember Howie Long changing out of his pads in a dilapidated classroom. The Raiders' current headquarters in Oakland would make a lovely Goodwill store. And yet Davis constantly complained about the stadiums he was given -- the L.A. Coliseum and Oakland Alameda Coliseum -- to great profit. He suckered the city of Irwindale, Calif., out of $10 million with fake interest in moving his team there, then took $30 million from Oakland to come back.

Yes, Al Davis had "a deep love and passion for the game of football" (Oakland Raiders).

You sure couldn't tell in person. I sat in dozens of press boxes with Davis steaming in the back row, yelling, cussing and pounding his fists at the tiniest miscue. Even when he'd win, he looked miserable. I've known happier inmates.

Marcus Allen
Marcus Allen is proof that you were a "Raider for life" until you weren't.

Yes, Al Davis "made football a better game" (Mike Holmgren).

But not for everybody. He was as paranoid as a getaway driver. His PR staffs were routinely the most hamstrung in the league. Davis had no use for press or the fans they serviced. Once, at an AFC title game, a reporter he didn't recognize asked a question. Davis was livid. "Why should I talk to you?" he snarled. "I don't know where you're from! You could be from Florida! Or Afghanistan!" Perhaps Davis suspected the guy was as devious as he was. Once, as an assistant in San Diego, he posed as a reporter and asked a Buffalo Bill to diagram a play that had gone for a touchdown. He later used the play to score a touchdown -- against Buffalo.

Yes, Al Davis' catchy "Just win, baby" became a mantra that transcended sports.

Just win, baby, no matter who you trample to get there. The problem is, people take only so much trampling. In 1983, Davis could've had Stanford QB John Elway. Davis needed to work a three-way deal with Baltimore and Chicago, but the Bears despised him. So Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser, a man who knew less about football than Davis' housekeeper, snuck in at the last minute and got a player who would lead the team to five Super Bowls. Karma.

Yes, Al Davis could be "generous to a fault" (former Raider Warren Bankston). He took care of former Raiders who were hurting and even paid for the funeral of Kansas City Chief Derrick Thomas.

Yet after practices, Davis would routinely throw a towel down on the locker room floor and wait for somebody to clean his shoes. No please, no thank you. Just do it, baby. And grown men would.

Yes, Al Davis "bled silver and black" (CBS San Francisco).

Accent on the black.


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's latest book, "Sports from Hell."