I goofed on Al Davis, just like everyone else. We goofed on the late Oakland Raiders owner because he looked like the Crypt Keeper in a white sweat suit. And also because he spent his last decade on Earth making hilariously bad football decisions and behaving with all the befuddled malice of Junior Soprano in his shuffling-around-in-his-bathrobe years. Davis legendarily read every word written about the Raiders back when such a thing was possible, which means that there’s perhaps a slight chance that he read an article of mine in which I claimed (despite a lack of convincing evidence) that he was in fact Quetzalcoatl, a serpentine destroyer-deity who was popular in Central America some centuries ago.
He probably didn’t, because by the time I wrote that obscure piece, Davis had disappeared into what was already an extravagantly fortified mental panic room, emerging only to select players seemingly at random in the NFL draft and pursue increasingly obscure vendettas against employees past and present. That Davis was isolated from the real world set him apart from exactly none of his peers in the NFL’s ownership club. What set Davis apart, and what made him both weirdly great and an asshole of world-historic proportions, was how crazy he was.
I don’t mean crazy as in “diagnosed medically,” although who can say for sure about that? He was crazy in terms of being vicious and vindictive and paranoid, although you could boil his mania down to a simpler and stranger thing—an obsession with winning and football that most American males lose sometime around when they discover inter-gender relations. Granted, Davis presumably had at least a passing interest in that stuff—not to bring up the image of Al Davis having sex, but the man was married to the same woman for 57 years and had a son, and we can only assume that Davis loved them nearly as much as he hated sworn enemies Lane Kiffin and Marcus Allen.
But Davis’s obituaries don’t bring up his family in the first paragraph. His obsession with winning made him ugly and small—he played off a handful of Californian cities against one another (and deserted both Oakland and Los Angeles) in pursuit of the best possible stadium deal, and the stubbornness that curdled his dotage led him to fuck up his franchise royally. The obsession with winning, though, also drove him towards an almost accidental greatness. The progressive things that Davis did—and there were many, from drafting and playing black players before other teams did to hiring the league’s first black and Hispanic head coaches to appointing the NFL’s first woman CEO—served that obsession first and foremost.
There was a real and unusual grace to the spectacular generosity and loyalty Davis extended to his former players (he often picked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills) but that seemed an expression of his reverence for football as much as an expression of compassion towards individual people. The same can be said for his longstanding role as a labor peacemaker. He abstained from the NFL’s recent lockout, which indicates that he wasn’t fueled by the same greed as everyone else. Weirdly, he was one of the few sports team owners who seemed to love his sport.
The former Tennessee Titans GM Floyd Reese tells the story of being at a NFL meeting that Davis interrupted several times by saying, “Keep in mind, gentlemen, this is the finest sport in the history of sports and it is our duty to keep it that way. Football takes precedence over everything.” Which, the awesome non-economy of “the finest sport in the history of sports” aside, is basically crazy talk. But it speaks well of him, that he could be so consumed by something as small as a game and still give so greatly—that he could be so extravagantly disordered in so many ways and yet still be so much more generous, authentic, and (when in comes down to it) admirable than his less outwardly insane contemporaries in the NFL’s ownership suites. It says a lot about his sour, silly peers, but it says a lot about Davis, too. He was an ill-tempered, savage lizard deity, but also and always never more or less than human.