Were you a Raiders fan when you were younger?
Insanely so. At Yale in the Seventies, when my boring, gray-flannel Giants were foundering, I was an angry, anarchic, substance-loving rebel without a cause…except pro football. There was only one way to reconcile those two disparate personalities: falling in love with a football team that wore its hair to its shoulders, its eyeblack like vampiric mascara, and its attitude on its (ragged) black sleeves — playing in a grassy stadium where the sun was still shining on television when, back East, it had already turned into dark, depressing Sunday Night, which meant that indecipherable classes about Immanuel Kant were looming at dawn. The weekly Raider games were my soulful salvation.
What drew you to writing about this team now?
For thirty years – starting just about the time the Cowboys were anointed as “America’s Team” — I’ve been watching with dismay as the NFL deteriorates from sport into High Entertainment, into a show where, as tight end Raymond Chester puts it in the book, “the “players are independent contractors. They are each mini sports corporations.” In my last book, The Glory Game, with Frank Gifford, we recreated the 1958 Colts and Giants: an era when the game still had a foot in its lunchpail roots, when the players would hang in the locker room after practice to be with their friends, then head off to Toots Shor’s to get blitzed, because Toots would always pick up the check, and they were making less money than bus drivers. So after I finished that one, I wondered: What was the last great football team that played the sport for love and camaraderie, not money or fame? It was a no-brainer: the Raiders of the Seventies. During that one decade, they won more games than any other team, including a Super Bowl. But much more intriguingly, they played for each other, they partied hard and long, and they loved their downtrodden city as much as the city loved them. Each summer the vets would show up in training camp early, so they could hang with their friends. Would that ever happen now? No way.
The Seventies produced a number of colorful teams, including the Steel Curtain Steelers, the Bronx Zoo Yankees, and the We Are Family Pirates. Was there something about that decade?
Absolutely…and let’s not forget the no-hitter Dock Ellis pitched on acid in 1970! History judges the Seventies as a light footprint in our national history, and it may have been, culturally…but in pro sports, the ideological vestiges of the Sixties lived on into the Seventies. The athletes who emerged as stars in the Seventies had grown up as kids in the Sixties — when their adolescent sports tracks kept them from joining in the rebellion until they turned pro, at which point many of them became free to channel their inner Abbie Hoffman/Malcolm X. Pro sports has always been, always will be, a conservative collective corporation, business-management-wise, but –weirdly – in pro sports, the revolution now lived on. In the Seventies, the pro athlete started to truly become empowered, as television embraced sports as a viable revenue stream. At that tipping point, a lot of the athletes found the most counter-intuitive of stages on which to display their rebellious souls: the playing field.
How different would the NFL be today if Al Davis and not Pete Rozelle had become commissioner?
How different would the United States be if Ralph Nader had been elected president? We’d have an entirely different league, in a hundred different ways. Rozelle was a slick team player – and an ace marketer. His job in 1966 was to turn the merging leagues into one revenue-producing entertainment product. (He could have done the same thing with competing grocery-store chains, and probably been as professionally satisfied.) Rozelle was a tanned, handsome, central-casting spokesman who was great at unruffling inter-owner-feud feathers and smilingly molding the sport into an attractive television commodity: the architect of the game we have today. If Davis the historian/ego had prevailed, Al’s dictatorial Roman-emperor streak (think the good emperors: Augustus, not Caligula) would have turned the league into a league of warring nation-tribes, with mano-a-mano competition between franchises: no holds barred, no restrictions on stealing other players, winner take all. The losers would have Darwinianly disappeared. At heart, Davis is a male Ayn Rand. But more significantly, under Davis the old players would have been taken care of; for all of his empire-building instincts, Davis’ real managerial talent lay in his love for each and every one of his players. He never forgot that he himself wasn’t good enough to play, and he always held his athletes in reverence for their skills. He treated them like kings. If Davis had run the whole shop back then, we wouldn’t have infirm ex-NFLers having to beg for help today. On the other hand, he probably wouldn’t have allowed for the revenue-sharing that Giant owner Wellington Mara spearheaded, which is the underlying economic factor that contributes to the parity in the modern league, and allows every fan in every city to have honest hopes of reaching the playoffs each year. But this is all a fantasy: Al as Commissioner would have lasted a season or two before being expelled, in a coup of boorish, foppish industrialists who would have toppled him, as Rome did with most of its emperors (although they probably wouldn’t have used the Praetorian Guard to murder him, so he’d have retired to an island fortress, like Catalina, and started another league).
Do you think people have forgotten what a great coach John Madden was? These days he’s best known as a commentator and video-game pitchman.
If Madden had wanted to erase his name from the pantheon of great coaches (which I know he didn’t; today he holds enormous pride in his coaching achievements), he couldn’t have chosen a better post-coaching career: becoming the Greek Chorus of the sport for four decades, and thereby obscuring his brief coaching brilliance. He walked away at the top, like Jim Brown: with a better winning-percentage than Vince Lombardi’s. I’d put him on the Rushmore of coaching with George Halas, Paul Brown and Lombardi. But his talent as a coach lay in a philosophy entirely antithetical to the other three: he was anti-authoritarian. He turned his players loose six days a week as long as they showed up full-bore on Sunday, and treated them like men doing a job, professionals who could be trusted about doing the work they were being paid for. As Ken Stabler put it in the book, one of his credos was “On the field, go play. Off the field, go play.” Or, as tight end Ted Kwalick said, “I was glad to play for a coach who treated you like a man, not like a kid.” That saying about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves? Madden gave them enough rope to be themselves. And the result of that looseness was that they loved him, and showed up on Sunday determined to make him proud. Like Davis, Madden revered his players, and liked them as people. The bottom line is that John never bought into the idea of coaches being drill-sergeants, or mind-masters arranging pawns (or slabs of meat). He saw himself as a shepherd of a bunch of grown-up, athletes who were proud of their individuality, and let them roam where they wanted to.
Who’s your favorite of the Badass Raiders? Stabler, Biletnikoff, Guy, Upshaw, Moore?
Definitely Stabler, with linebacker Phil Villapiano second and Freddy Biletnikoff third. Gene Upshaw was arguably the best guard in history, but didn’t buy into the team-vibe craziness; he was a politician. Ray Guy partied with the best, and is inarguably the best ever at his position, but hey, he was a punter (even if he wanted to start at safety). The true definition of a Badass in this context is someone who was at the top of his game on and off the field. So, the bronze: Biletnikoff was responsible for bringing Carol Doda, the Hall-of-Fame topless dancer, to training camp, and played his way into the football Hall of Fame, chain-smoking all the way. The silver: Villapiano would go straight from the practice field to the nearby hotel bar, drinking various whiskies on the rocks (with John Matuszak, Otis Sistrunk and Ted Hendricks) – and then, on Sunday, play like a madman. Foo wasn’t happy unless his tackles spilled some blood (his opponents’, or his own; he didn’t care). But Ken Stabler was the uncontested gold-medal Badass. He could party until dawn and throw three TDs the next afternoon. But his off-field odysseys paled next to his Sunday leadership. The more intense the game situation, the calmer he grew, until he was Zen-like at the critical points in games, completely cool and composed. The team kept winning, week after week, year after year, for one reason: because they believed, to a man, that Ken Stabler would win the game for them in the fourth quarter. And he almost always did. In that Super Bowl, for the most part calling his own plays, he was a Buddhic machine. The all loved him.
In covering the Raiders of that era, your book also reminds us of how the NFL has changed in the last three decades. Are there any teams in the league now that carry on the tradition of the Madden/Davis Raiders? Perhaps the Baltimore Ravens?
Definitely the Ravens, although Rex Ryan, the coach of the Jets, has a lot of Madden in him: big, funny, loose, with total faith in his players. But the Ravens fit the Badass bill. They wear black, they’re from a downtrodden town, and they hit harder than any team in history. Ray Lewis would have been a great Badass – although he overstepped the Badass bounds…after all, he was indicted for murder, and none of the Raiders was ever even busted. The Raiders’ rebellions never resulted in anything more than having to walk home because they were too drunk to change a flat tire. But going by another definition of Badass – which is that other teams are literally afraid to play you, for fear of their careers, and/or their lives – then the Ravens are our last holdover.
Do you think the image created by the Badass Raiders of the Seventies is also responsible for the franchise being adopted as an icon by gangsta rap after the team moved to L.A. (as Ice Cube documented in his film “Straight Outta L.A.)?
From the very beginning, as the also-ran team in the Bay Area, representing an industrial multi-racial town lying a couple of bridges away from a gentrified cultural capital, the Raiders appealed to underclasses. In the Seventies, when the team was half African-American, the stands in the Coliseum were equally black and white, and the tailgating parties the players joined in on after every game in the parking lots were always multiracial – white, black, Asian. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were huge Raider fans (as were the local, Sonny Barger-led chapter of the Hell’s Angels). Even if the Raiders had been a bad team in those years, instead of great, they would still have sown the seeds of revolution. Ice Cube’s documentary was an inevitable anthem to an American philosophy that gangsta rap represents: authority at the cost of individual expression is dangerous authority, and must be defied. The cool thing is that hard-core rappers (discluding the ones who actually engage in gunplay) recognized, as Raider fans always have, that football isn’t just a sport; it’s now embedded, as it should be, as a manifestation/expression of our modern national and cultural bloodstream, as powerful as music. The idea that baseball is America’s “pastime” is painfully accurate; that game represents the centuries-old-school belief that our land was at its best when we could move the old farmland-game into vacant lots in the newly humming industrialized cities, and that White America would happily click on, while the factory workers migrating from the South would just truck on, happily oppressed. Professional football, as commercial as it’s now become, is nonetheless as joyous an expression of our actual national collective vibe as hip-hop and rap. We’ve always been good at music, ever since Midwestern Lutheran/European church music met urban jazz in the Twenties. And we’ve always been good at sports. It’s natural that the two should have merged in Oakland. (The only thing that disappointed me, music/football-wise, is that the true pioneers of punk, Black Flag, never adopted the Raiders. But it’s never too late. They must be touring somewhere.)
Why have the Raiders been so mediocre lately and is there hope that the Raider franchise might one day soon become a Super Bowl champion again?
Soon? No. Sooner or later? Well, yes — eventually; revenue-sharing and free-agency guarantee surprises every few years; the days of dynasties are over. But the Raiders carry a handicap: Davis’ continuing insistence at being the black- sheep iconoclast in the league, relying on his old gut instinct to find players whom everyone has overlooked. But this is no longer a viable strategy; thanks to the scouting combines and the internet, every team’s personnel staff now knows every player out there, from Notre Dame to Bloomsburg University. When I asked the Badass defensive coordinator Bob Zeman about the machinations of Draft Day back in the Seventies, he told me, “Of course, Al would make the final pick. It might be 10 to one against him, but he’d make the pick.” I suspect that this is still the case, and Davis’ judgment has slipped. Their last few drafts have been questionable. And he has no Madden in the trip-wired, high-tempered Tom Cable. Sadly (with apologies to Robert A. Heinlein and Leon Russell) Davis has become a Stranger in a Strange Land. Until he relinquishes the lifelong belief that one iron-willed genius can rule his world, the Raiders will struggle. Maybe he ought to start over in another frontier sport – say, female roller derby. But I know that he won’t, and that he can’t. The Raiders keep him alive, and who can begrudge him that? Sports has never seen, and never will see, another Al Davis. His brain is still totally football-obsessed – and still sharp. Let’s just hope he gets lucky in the next few years. If not, he can always revel in the memory of 1976, when Badasses roamed the landscape — dominant, defiant, and laughing at how they were the luckiest, and happiest, men in the world.