Sunday, October 9, 2011

Al Davis and the Media's Poison Jobs

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis died yesterday at 82. For most of you, that means the end of the scabby creature who ran the Raiders and leavened seasons of humiliating losses with employee firings suffused with Nixonian paranoia and loathing. Skimming Twitter reveals pretty much exactly what you expect from the internet: "jokes" linking Davis to Lovecraft monsters, fantasy monsters, sci-fi monsters, other permanently arrested-development genre monsters.

I can't claim to have done much better. Years ago, I wrote out a kind of silly thought-experiment likening Davis to Hitler. I didn't mean to sincerely equate the two, nor to rehabilitate Hitler in any way. At the time, it was funny to compare the Raiders' hermetic and endlessly back-biting front office with Hitler's last ten days:
Davis' ending has yet to be written, but it's currently playing out with the same drama of palace intrigue.... Messages go out from the Davis bunker: this is the year!—we are winning! Like Hitler's movement of paper armies in the face of the Soviets' overwhelming forces, the gestures are empty and futile. Conflicting reports emanate from underground: this one is out of favor. This one shall be the successor. No!—we were presumptuous: the leader has not named a successor. Davis has taken to issuing public comments to pressure head coach Lane Kiffin to resign...; the gestures echo Hitler delusionally promoting Paulus to Field Marshal to drive him to suicide.
This wasn't an obituary, though, and was never meant to be. This was clowning around with gossip and strange newsbites.

I still feel a little ashamed of it, because it sounds like a slightly less boneheaded version of the "he was a crazy skin-cancer goblin who sucked!" narrative I've spent the day reading on message boards and the last few years pushed by a lazy and easily sated media. I felt like I was re-pimping an already cartoonish pimp job offered on behalf of Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell in exchange for ample buffets and token opportunities for "access."

Today, at least, you won't find a media outlet that will fail to lionize Davis. He's the only man to be a coach, a scout, a head coach, a general manager and owner of a football team, as well as a league's commissioner. He popularized the idea of a high-powered offense that we all adore today, and, though he opposed merging the AFL with the NFL, engineered the strategy that forced the NFL to negotiate. The Raiders had the best winning percentage over four decades. But this hasn't been the narrative for years. This is stuff that comes out as burps in between a feast of schadenfreude and priggish PTA-esque clucking about how that Mr. Davis just doesn't do things the way the right kind of billionaires say he should.

Instead, for years, we've been treated to "Al Davis: Evil, Insane Megalomaniac," and questions about whether he's ruining football. And, really, it's not surprising when you consider how he's made a career rejecting the NFL's power structure, the people most of the mainstream NFL talking heads spend roughly 25 weeks per year taint-sucking like shit-starved remorae. At the beginning of the 1980s, he committed the greatest of all possible sins: he challenged the NFL's monopoly in court on an anti-trust basis and won, later endorsing the USFL. (Oddly, Howard Cosell has some of the most entertaining and passionate coverage of Davis' legal battles in an otherwise terrible book.) On top of a career of fierce loyalty to players even after trades or retirement and criticism of their treatment by the league, he abstained from the recent owners' votes on the NFL labor agreement. In effect, he's been a traitor to his class for three decades, advocating increased competition for ownership, challenging their preposterously cozy legal status, while giving aid and comfort to the labor pool that tries to suck owners' idly accrued wealth rightfully downward.

This open support of players was perhaps best exemplified by his courting of outcasts, malcontents and head cases. For most of his career, Davis succeeded with bad guys, non-"character" guys, the people who thwarted the league-desired and often team-enforced player image. His stewardship of the Raiders started when other teams still dressed in matching colored blazers for travel days. Later, his bearded, countercultural and fast-living players gave the lie to the canard that "character" brings excellence. Instead, the Raiders showed that excellence makes character irrelevant. Nothing creates chemistry like winning; as we saw with the Boston Red Sox this season, nobody goes in search of the wrong personalities and the wrong character until a losing streak. The Raiders' very existence impeached the corporatized, authoritarian, consumer-oriented bleaching of players in the name of a cynical morality.

That last pro-individual, anti-market impulse marks the basis on which we should celebrate Davis the most. In the 1960s, Davis was willing to risk alienating the lucrative football-crazy southern market when he pulled two games from venues there after learning that black players would be segregated in separate hotels, away from their teams. When it came to markets or morals, Davis told Jim Crow to go fuck itself. Later, he required no NFL-imposed rules to push to recruit black players in the south in the 1950s, to hire the first female CEO, the first (and, for 32 years, the only) hispanic head coach or the first black head coach in the modern era. On that last account, he beat the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rooney family by 17 years. Remember that the next time the Rooneys congratulate themselves for their Rooney rule, or the next time you read Dan Rooney's reference to Davis as a “lying creep." Rooney's an authority on character and creeps: when it came down to a choice between character and winning, the Rooneys chose Ben Roethlisberger.

Davis has spent the last several years being mentioned in the same breath as bad owners like Dan Snyder. His legacy has been distilled to whether he's won lately, and whether that failure came from refusing to play ball like the rest of the good owners. Winning and nice new stadiums have been the only rubric for what constitutes our esteem. Davis' mention in the same breath as other bad owners is a mockery of perspective. Apart from picking up emergency expenses and years-long medical bills for former players and associates without fanfare or second thought, the man has funneled money back into his team for decades, with a monomaniacal football focus.

Even if he lost as much as Snyder, at least he had the decency to treat owning a football team as the apex goal of his life and his players as brothers in arms, rather than a new vector for divesting fans of every last possible cent to fund a legendarily tacky sybarite lifestyle, like some dipshit version of Tiberius at an "Isle of Capri Casino." (Of course, that last concept could work with two teams, considering the Miami Dolphins are on track to turn their stadium into this in five years, complete with celebrity greeter Dwayne Wade.)

In many ways, it's his fault, too — both his body's and his mind's. His ever more gaunt, liver-spotted and cancer-scarred visage could shock non-football fans who happened to walk by your computer while you were reading about him. It takes less effort to paint a man as evil when his face itself seems to be partly devoured, confirming our old cultural superstitions that the deformed or sickly are punished by God for some defect of the soul. And as for that part of him, Davis delighted in cultivating his image as a sinister and secret Machiavel. He preferred to be thought capable of anything, letting his opponents' imaginations conjure ever greater lengths to which he'd go, to worry about what he was capable of more than what he was likely to do: over-watering the field, helium in Ray Guy's footballs, bugs in the opposing locker room, team agents posing as hotel bellboys. When journalists asked about these things, better to wink than to answer. Davis' legacy is captive to his own press.

The funny thing about Davis' memory is that he probably has worse things going against it than his own pretensions to being sinister and the NFL's water-carrying flacks. He owned the former, and the latter will own him at their pleasure. The recriminations about his last decade are earned, and the toadies will always earn their keep as part of the prevailing marketing wish-list of what it means to own a football team that plays football in the National Football League of football.

What's funny is that he had the greater misfortune not only to die before his unwell-wishers but also in the same week as Steve Jobs. Both Jobs and Davis were micro-managers, and both were known to humiliate underlings and impose bizarre rules of secrecy and punishment. But Davis looked evil before death, and opinion-makers said that he did evil, while Jobs always dressed accessibly in jeans and slimming black, and he was said to have freed us all, with neat stuff we could play with. Both instruct us in how damning packaging can be.

Davis expanded opportunities for minorities, by recruiting, hiring and defending them, while repudiating even monied interests that supported Jim Crow. Davis spent his fortune freely among friends and old players, paying, without fanfare, nearly $100,000 for a special bed for one of his antagonists when he was deathly ill. He challenged monopoly and its assertions against the labor that profited it. Jobs was a multi-billionare who never gave to charity, who sold individuality and freedom in monopoly packages, at a higher price point than competing products, while offering products that underperformed against competitors. Jobs fought acknowledging the paternity of his own children and whitewashed Orwellian working conditions and laborers so despairing of any value to life that they defenestrated themselves.

Poor Al Davis. He was committed to winning above all, but he can't even win in death. When push comes to shove, a man who fought for decades to promote minorities and to challenge the comfort of monopolistic billionaires just can't compete with a glowering multi-billionaire who bilked millions of people out of their dollars for substandard products made by a Gilded Age labor force toiling so direly that suicide seemed like a viable alternative.

If only Al Davis had made something that allowed people to record themselves doing every possible variant of pointless narcissistic shit, then broadcast it to the world, then go back to playing Angry Birds.