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Monday, October 10, 2011

Al Davis, Steve Jobs, and the Deaths of Difficult Men

Posted By on Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 1:10 PM

click to enlarge Yes, this really happened
  • Yes, this really happened

When Albert Schweitzer passed into the great beyond, the obituary writer's task was relatively straightforward. That's not to say it was easy -- but penning a remembrance for a man whose name has become synonymous with benevolence is a unique endeavor.

More indicative of the challenges of blending honesty with respect for the dead were the recent passings of a pair of titans: Steve Jobs and Al Davis. Both men created a product, so to speak, that won the allegiance of millions of followers. Countless Mac People offered paeans to the man who "invented our world." Similarly, the inhabitants of Raider Nation wept as if for a lost grandfather.

Both reactions are, in part, appropriate. But, though it runs counter to societal pressure to all but canonize the recently deceased, it's dishonest to not note that both Jobs and Davis were largely defined by prickly and even downright nasty personalities. In fact, one could argue that if they'd been made of Albert Schweitzer stuff, they'd have never been so successful. 

SF Weekly's Dan Mitchell touched on this in a superbly written piece in the wake of Jobs' death. Yes, Apple's CEO and cofounder was "kind of a prick" -- but, unlike Wall Street barons, whose greed and nastiness has been to the detriment of society, Jobs was committed to producing excellent products he believed in -- and that benefitted us all.

To an extent, the same could be said for Davis, the man who coined the phrase "Commitment to Excellence." Davis' devotion to the Raiders was a lifelong obsession, and his loyalty to players and employees who remained on his good side was absolute. Davis' football acumen and pivotal role advancing minorities within the insular world of the National Football League are unquestionable.

But, even when he was at the top of his game in the 1970s, Davis was not an attractive person. In 1972, he assumed control of the Raiders through essentially a hostile takeover, reorganizing the management of the franchise to exclude F. Wayne Valley -- who had, incidentally, hired on the youthful Davis and given him a bargain when staking him to a portion of the team.

Whether his teams were championship caliber or, as of late, the dregs of the league, Davis micromanaged every detail. Hunter S. Thompson famously recounted the owner commanding Kenny Stabler and a handful of players to repeatedly run the same passing route in practice until it was executed to Davis' satisfaction. This kind of hands-on emasculation of the team's coaches loses its charm when said coaches essentially serve as conduits or yes-men, and the team declines from the league's elite to perennial losers.

But that's Davis' business -- literally. He can run his business as he sees fit. It becomes our business, however, when massive amounts of public money begin flowing into Davis' pocket. While professional sports franchises have been extorting money out of cities since the Eisenhower era, it was Davis who perfected this practice. The owner who demanded -- and repaid -- absolute loyalty showed none of that quality when dealing with the fans who made the ultimate mistake of growing emotionally attached to a business masquerading as a regional sporting team. Davis ripped the heart out of Oakland by yanking the franchise to Los Angeles, expertly played the cities against one another to extort more money still, and then moved the Raiders back to the Bay in the 1990s for a king's ransom.

"Everyone always asks me 'what's the worst stadium deal you've ever seen?' And it's hard to pick just one. They're awful in all their own ways," says Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes. "But in Oakland, they not only ended up having to pay for it, the way they had to pay for it was that horrible Personal Seat License deal -- they had to sell them. And they ruined a perfectly good baseball stadium for it."

That deal cost Oakland scores of millions of dollars. Oakland could use scores of millions of dollars.  

Years from now, after the hagiographic tendencies fade, recollections of Davis' dark side may be what survive the longest. Fans may not remember his X's and O's genius and management acumen, his generosity to former employees, or his commitment to egalitarianism. But they will recall the endless litany of lawsuits, the boorish and embarrassingly nasty behavior, and the utter disregard for the team's fans. (Oakland backers' loyalty is either admirable or pitiable: Despite years of futility overshadowed by the ever-present possibility of Davis marching the team off to parts unknown, it's hard to imagine a more devoted fan base. Can this be explained via battered women's syndrome?).

Of course, the paranoia, greed, and compulsion that drove Davis to be one of the most reviled men in football also accounts for his success -- and veneration in many circles. Albert Schweitzer couldn't have played hardball with the NFL, engineering the AFL-NFL merger. It took a hard man to make the Raiders of the '70s and early '80s a powerhouse. And it took someone who didn't give a damn about what others thought of him to make the progressive personnel moves Davis did. (On a similar note, Steve Jobs' drive and passion also led to unpleasant behavior as well).

In short, the world needs all sorts of people. But we shouldn't make a saint out of a man with questionable enough ethics to make "Just win, baby" his mantra.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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