“Al Davis vs. the NFL” – Never a contest [MOVIE REVIEW]

January 25, 1981, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, right, presents the Super Bowl XV trophy to Oakland Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, left, pumping his fist, after Sunday’s Super Bowl game against the Philadelphia Eagles in New Orleans. Sportscaster Bryant Gumble holds the microphone at center. (AP Photo/File)

“Al Davis vs. the NFL,” is the latest documentary from Ken Rodgers, a leading sports director best known for the HBO series “Hard Knocks,” and his work on previous ESPN “30 for 30” films. Rodgers definitely knows a good story when he sees one, and this is definitely a good story.

Al Davis promoted a self-image as an up from the streets Brooklyn boy but one could look at that as the beginning of his myth building. Yes, he lived in Brooklyn, yes, he lived in a sixth floor walk-up, but even during the depression his father made a good living in the garment district and comfortably put both of his sons through college. As Davis explained it, he was mad for competition, but he didn’t have the ability to play any of the high profile sports like baseball, basketball, or football. Tired of being a benchwarmer, he started studying the strategy of the games, especially football. He was nothing if not a conman when it came to his early abilities, but before long he had talked his way into an assistant coaching position at Adelphi University.

He spent his military service coaching the Fort Belvoir football team to a winning record. He steadily worked his way up the ranks of college and pro ball, scouting, selling reports, assistant coaching, until finally he was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Chargers in the American Football League. Not long after, Davis became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders of the AFL at the age of 33, the youngest coach in the league. Only a few years later, he was voted in as the Commissioner of the AFL.

The owners felt that Davis was the right person to put pressure on the NFL for a merger. Merge, they did, but Davis was not about to bow to Pete Rozelle, the young powerhouse commissioner of the NFL. He felt Rozelle’s disdain personally and viewed him as someone who bargained in bad faith. Davis resigned his position and returned to the Raiders, this time as a part owner and general manager. His choices in the head coach position are legendary, beginning with John Rauch who took the team to the AFL/NFL Championship (precursor to the Super Bowl) where they lost to Lombardi’s Packers; his subsequent hires were John Madden, followed by Tom Flores, and then Art Shell. Davis lived his motto, “Just win baby.” He did, often.

Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL for thirty years beginning in 1960, came to athletics through public relations. He worked for the unprofitable Los Angeles Rams in several capacities, including a turn as their general manager in 1957. He didn’t turn them into a winning team but he did turn them into a business success. Rozelle, a surprise pick as NFL commissioner in 1960, at age 33, applied his business acumen to stabilizing the league. He found new sources of revenue and maximized the ones they already had. Television rights became a major source of support and he instituted a profit sharing system by which the revenue generated by televising the games would be split among all the teams, thus helping to save the small market franchises. He was against joining the AFL to the NFL. But Davis found a way to force his hand and they merged, although Rozelle played the AFL as a second class citizen until finally, in 1970, both conferences (the AFC and the NFC) became a fully integrated NFL.

Rozelle was the power behind the success of the Super Bowl and came up with the idea of “Monday Night Football.” Seemingly, Rozelle knew how to mint money. Until…

Al Davis was unhappy with the Raiders’ situation in Oakland. The city would not build him the kind of stadium he needed. Davis, no slouch when it came to recognizing a profit formula, believed the team was losing millions of dollars per season because their outdated stadium was unable to provide luxury boxes, those exclusive seats with multiple perks sold for exorbitant fees to high rollers. Without them, Davis’ team depended solely on a stadium capacity that was smaller than most of the other teams. He wanted to move the team and Los Angeles had made him a lucrative offer.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle speaks at the New York Sheraton Hotel, April 26, 1983. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

Rozelle said no. He portrayed this as the scheme of a greedy man who would unleash an avalanche of similar moves if he approved this one. Using the bylaws of the league, whereby a majority of the 28 owners would have to agree to the move, he denied Davis. Davis then sued the NFL arguing that this was a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The NFL was clearly acting as a monopoly and that was illegal. Rozelle and Davis, never on good terms, became bitter enemies.

Greed vs. integrity. Streetwise hustler vs. Old Boys Club. Crude vs. refined. Davis vs. Rozelle. But, regardless of the first mistrial in the case, this was, as previously noted, a clear case of a group (the NFL owners) acting to control what should be a free market. Davis won, both the case and huge monetary damages, and he took his ball and went home, so to speak. But not before he won the Super Bowl at the end of his last season in Oakland, forcing Rozelle to face his irritant in the presentation of the trophy. It would be something that Rozelle would have to do again.

Rozelle was right in one area; this did open up the floodgates for other teams looking for more lucrative deals and better stadiums.

Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis announces at news conference in El Segundo, Calif., Friday August 21, 1987 that he has signed an agreement to move the team from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseums to the city of Irwindale, Calif., by 1991. (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith)

The move to Los Angeles didn’t turn out quite the way Davis had planned. After more than ten years and more negotiations, the Los Angeles Coliseum reneged on the most important parts of their offer, a renovated stadium with luxury boxes. When a deal with the city of Irwindale in Los Angeles County fell through, it was another move and back to Oakland.

And then another lawsuit, this time to move the franchise to Las Vegas. With Davis it was endless. He never got to see the fruits of that labor.

If there is a quibble, it’s certainly not with the research or archival footage. For some reason Rodgers chose to use two life-like representations of Rozelle and Davis as the narrators of this tale. When I say life-like, I really mean that they look as though someone took them out of a grave, dusted them off, added lots of makeup and bloated their faces. Each representation is a cross between a zombie and a vain man who had too much bad facial plastic surgery. It’s really distracting. Better to have had an actor voicing the dialogues than a hilariously pitiful mannequin.

This documentary speeds by, loaded with information you probably didn’t know, even if you were familiar with the key players. A fuller portrait of Al Davis emerges because he lived his life loud and large. The Rozelle you see is the very definition of buttoned down, although still very interesting. Both men changed the sport and it’s exciting to relive.

Launching Thursday February 4 on ESPN and ESPN+.





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Written by: Neely Swanson

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