Al Davis: Raider of Lost Art
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis is more responsible for the modern-day NFL than anyone else alive in the country. He is, without a doubt, the single greatest living influence in the NFL.
Given that the NFL is far and away the most successful pro sports outfit in the country, that means that Davis is the man most responsible for the league's success. That also means, take a deep breath, Al Davis is the man most responsible for the state of American sports in the 21st century.
I know, I know, it comes as a shock to think that a wrinkled old man who still uses the same kind of overhead projector that your seventh grade pre-algebra teacher did in 1991 could be the man most responsible for the NFL's success today.
But Davis is.
In fact, his football achievements are legion, greater than the achievements of any living owner in any sport today.
In 1963, the same year that John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, Al Davis took over as head coach of the American Football League's moribund Oakland Raiders franchise. At the time, the Raiders, entering into their fourth season as an AFL franchise, were among the worst teams in the AFL, boasting a 9-33 all-time record. Davis immediately obtained football success, going 10-4 in his first season and being named Coach of the Year.
Then Davis did the improbable, he challenged the NFL.
At 36 years old, he left coaching to became AFL Commissioner. Davis immediately did what he would do best in his career, go to war with the NFL to hire away the best players. That first year he was commissioner, Davis signed eight starting NFL quarterbacks to AFL agreements. As a result, salaries escalated, tempers flared, and the NFL, the same league that laughed when the AFL had been formed, sued for peace. So competitive was Davis that the AFL owners negotiated without him present because they knew he would never accede to a merger.
What did that merger create?
The most successful sports league in world history.
Why did that merger take place?
Because Al Davis was willing to challenge the NFL, something no one else has successfully done since.
Without Al Davis' competitive drive, there is no Super Bowl. The leagues may never have merged. Hell, the AFL might not have even survived. What's more, Davis's AFL pioneered innovation in the world of football. Whereas the NFL had one static camera at the 50-yard line, the AFL brought multiple cameras and mic'd the players. While the NFL stuck to a stodgy run game, the AFL produced offense-first football, introduced the two-point conversion and shared home and away gate and television receipts among teams.
The AFL also pioneered television revenue sharing, gave black players more opportunities on the field than the comparatively racist NFL, added player names to the back of jerseys and finally put a scoreboard clock featuring the official time on a scoreboard.
All of these ideas seem completely obvious today, but before Davis's AFL waged war on the NFL, innovation was dead in the game of football. It took a fearless leader like Davis to make this merger happen.
Fan of the Super Bowl?
You owe thanks to Al Davis.
Fan of the Bengals, Browns, Patriots, Broncos, Jets, Raiders, Chargers, Dolphins, Chiefs, or Oilers/Titans?
You owe your team's existence in the NFL to the spunky leadership of Commissioner Al Davis. Yep, the man who would be most responsible for the creation of the NFL's dominance at first wanted to destroy the NFL. Is there anything more emblematic of the NFL's rise to superstardom than a football death match at inception?
My esteemed colleague David Whitley is arguing that George Steinbrenner has done more for Major League Baseball than Al Davis has for the NFL but, with all due respect to Steinbrenner, is the New York Yankees' owner the most responsible living man for the creation of the greatest sports league in world history? I think not. All Steinbrenner did was exploit competitive advantages inherent to his own team to the betterment of that franchise. Steinbrenner made the Yankees better because he maximized the money they could spend. But in the process, he made the overall product of Major League Baseball weaker. That's because Steinbrenner took from the weak to make himself stronger.
Davis pioneered a league where everyone is always strong.
What's more, while he's cranky and out of touch as an octogenarian, Davis is the last living foil to the NFL, the man who makes the league justify its decisions. What other person alive today is even willing to get into the courtroom and battle the mighty NFL over anything?
Roger Goodell can suspend players for years and they don't even utter a peep of complaint.
And we haven't even talked about Al Davis' three Super Bowl wins, his 15 conference championships, or the fact that the Oakland franchise only existed for three years without Davis. Before George Steinbrenner took over the Yankees, New York already had 20 World Series titles. Before Al Davis took over the Raiders, the franchise only had nine total wins.
Put it this way, if Al Davis didn't exist, the sporting world as we know it might be completely different. There would be no Super Bowl, there may have never been an expanded NFL, and football would not have become America's pastime. If George Steinbrenner didn't exist, would anything be that different in baseball?
On July 4, Al Davis will turn 81.
As we all shoot fireworks into the night sky and prepare for our national sporting obsession, the NFL, to return once more, we should all raise a hotdog and beer high into the air to honor Davis, the man who has done more for his sport than any living Yankee Doodle Dandy.
"Just win, baby," said Al Davis.
Ultimately, you did win, Al, you crazy bastard, and so did we.