How are we supposed to react when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies? When Al Davis, the Raiders owner and de-facto general manager/supreme generalissimo, passed away at 82 on Saturday this was the question that sports reporters, NFL officials, Davis’ laundry list of discarded coaches, and even some of his friends were forced to ask themselves. Similarly to what happened earlier in the week when a giant of America’s other great modern industry died, the typical response was to gloss over the unfortunate bits, of which with Davis there were many.
A major part of Davis’ mixed legacy is certainly the loyalty he showed to his players, his role in shaping the modern passing game and forging the NFL-AFL merger, and especially what he did to open up the sport to minorities and women at times when much of the league and the country were still bogged down by the racism and sexism of fading eras. But the other half of his legacy is far less pretty. This is a man who was constantly at war with the league and various other self-made enemies, who broke the hearts of two different NFL fanbases by moving his team twice, and who turned a franchise that he had once made into the league’s proudest back into a laughingstock.
Having gone to the other side on the Day of Atonement, Davis has apparently been exculpated of his sins entirely. His negative traits have either been softened or simply disappeared. The words that keep getting batted around now to describe Davis are controversial, rebel, maverick, passionate, and complex.
There were some excellent accounts of the true nature of his complexity (see Bill Plaschke’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times) in the print media. But the television networks, which I guess were bound to produce superficial coverage, for the most part ignored one of the most important aspects of Davis’ legacy: his assholery.
The official tribute film produced by the NFL Network repeatedly mentioned a standard trope that “Davis was impossible to define” and used his famous motto as an excuse to absolve him of his complexities. “Though a complex man, his motivation was perfectly simple,” the film declared. “Just win, baby.” In truth, Davis’ motives were not always to just win. Oftentimes they were to just screw with people. He did everything he could to make Pete Rozelle’s existence a living hell after Rozelle outmaneuvered him to become the NFL’s first post-merger commissioner. He benched Marcus Allen for two years over a contract vendetta, nearly ruining a Hall of Fame career. And there’s the mortifying way he fired Lane Kiffin, leading San Jose Mercury columnist Ann Killion to conclude that he had once and for all “disclosed his own dark, vindictive soul.”
On the Fox pre-game canonization, both Howie Long and Michael Strahan lamented that “this generation” hadn’t gotten to know the real Al Davis, while at the same time glossing over many of the real unpleasant things that he did throughout his career. Even the people to whom he caused the most harm and feuded with the most found a way to skirt the issue of Davis’ charming roguishness, as Rozelle one famously described his confrontational personality. From Allen to ESPN’s Chris Mortenson (whom Davis had called a professional liar) to Lane Kiffin himself, one and all proclaimed how important Davis was to the game without broaching the other reason he was important.
What the memorializers don’t understand is that it was his negative qualities nearly as much as his positive ones that allowed him to achieve such great things for his Raiders and for the league. By discussing how integral he was to bringing about the merger—one that he was opposed to and one that was ultimately concluded behind his back—without mentioning that this was because he was ruthlessly (and sometimes vengefully) helping to raid the NFL’s top talent as AFL commissioner, pundits are downplaying the part of his personality that allowed him to become such an important figure and also the part that he is most famous for. Specifically, the asshole part.
Like most great assholes, Davis was largely self-aware and even proud of himself. “The words ‘cunning,’ ‘shrewd,’ and ‘devious’ don’t have a bad connotation to me,” he is quoted as having said in Peter Richmond’s Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders. “Look at the history of people in positions of leadership. They’ve said of every one of my time that he’s devious—from Roosevelt and Churchill to Eisenhower, Kissinger, and Mao.” Just look at the last two to see the sort of company Davis openly put himself in.
So, Tom, I guess my question is this: If Davis was happy to embrace his darker side then shouldn’t we be as well? Or is pointing out the assholedom of the recently deceased unnecessary and over the line even if it’s both true and crucial to that man’s great legacy?