Al Davis: American badass

Why should you care about Al Davis, the maverick Oakland Raiders owner who passed away October 8 at the age of 82? Because not only did Al Davis create one of the greatest badass brands of all time with the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League, he was a badass. The ethos of the Raiders silver and black has had an enormous cross-over appeal in American culture, informing the tastes of a diverse demographic ranging from urban rap artists to middle-class suburbanites.

Through his actions and his style of marketing, Al Davis epitomized brand authenticity.

Al Davis is best remembered for his take-no-prisoners “Just win, baby” style of running the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s and for the slicked-backed hair and dark sunglasses that made him look like a cross between a greaser and Darth Vader. But he had been part of professional football since 1960 (at one point being head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1963). He started to flex is muscle as a badass in 1966, when he was named the first commissioner of the American Football League (AFL) — at the time, a fledgling upstart challenging the imperial reign of the NFL. And he immediately started firing six guns at the NFL like Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti western, leading an aggressive war to steal players away from the NFL by offering them better salaries.

And Davis thumbed his nose at everyone, even the AFL. The book America’s Game recounts the story of Davis’s relentless pursuit of John Brodie, a quarterback of the NFL San Francisco 49ers, during the NFL-AFL player wars. Davis was attempting to lure Brodie over to the AFL Houston Oilers by dangling a generous offer. Davis’s fellow AFL executive (and powerful co-founder) Lamar Hunt wasn’t so sure he agreed with what Davis was doing and voiced his objections to John Klosterman, general manager of the Houston Oilers. As related in America’s Game:

Klosterman called Davis, who was supervising other negotiations. “Lamar called,” Klosterman reported to Davis, “and he really does not want to go through with [the signing of John Brodie to the Oilers.]”

Davis was pensive. “Did you give him your word?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid I did.”

Davis paused for a moment, considered the circumstances, and then said, “Fuck it! Sign him anyway.”

Now that’s what I call a badass.

But Al Davis made his mark as a badass after he resigned as AFL commissioner and became owner and operator of the Oakland Raiders during the 1970s. Al Davis did more than run a team that won Super Bowls. He created a badass brand. If you watched football in the 1970s, you know the Pittsburgh Steelers stood for excellence, the Dallas Cowboys were the self-proclaimed America’s team, and the Raiders were the rebellious renegades.

The team certainly looked like badasses each time they took the field, with their menacing silver and black uniforms and the pirate logotype (Davis had introduced the colors and logo when he was team coach and general manager in 1963).

But Davis also stockpiled his team with notorious hell raisers like “Wild Man” John Matouszak, Kenny Stabler (who looked like the quarterback of a Hells Angels pick-up team, George Atkinson (described as a member of the league’s “criminal element” by Steelers coach Chuck Knoll), Otis Sistrunk (who once said he’d been schooled at the University of Mars), and Jack Tatum. The team had a reputation for a vicious style of play (even by NFL standards) and for wild behavior off the field. Jack Tatum, whose biography was fittingly titled They Call Me Assassin, was notorious for paralyzing New England Patriots Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley when the two players collided during a play in a 1978 preseason game.

Jack Tatum

Davis was as notorious as his team. He ran the team with an iron fist as owner operator, had a reputation (deserved or not) for intimidating other teams by spying on them, and constantly thumbed his nose at the NFL, moving the Raiders to Los Angeles over the objections of the NFL in 1982 and then moving the team back to Oakland in 1995 (and filing numerous lawsuits against the NFL in the process).

As Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated once wrote of Al Davis (in an article fittingly titled “Al to the World: Get Out of Our Way”): “On the field and off, Al Davis and his L.A. Raiders keep rolling over the NFL establishment in their own inimitable way.”

When the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, its badass demeanor was taken to a whole new level. Street gangs (especially the L.A.-based Crips) began wearing the silver and black colors like a badge of honor. Influential L.A. rap group NWA — composed of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren — famously wore Raiders gear publicly as the group developed its own brand of gangsta rap with seminal recordings like Straight Outta Compton — music that reflected their own harsh experiences growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

NWA

The resulting explosion of Raiders gear across the American landscape over the next 10 years would later be dubbed “Raiders Chic” by the New York Times.

As Michael Ornstein, the NFL’s director of Club Marketing, said in 1991, “You can’t turn on MTV now without seeing a Raiders jacket.”

Ice Cube, who would become a successful rapper and actor on his own, claimed to have popularized Raiders gear himself as a member of NWA based on his personal love of the team. In 2010, he directed Straight Outta L.A., a documentary about how NWA adopted the Raiders persona. He shared his story with New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff. This excerpt is quite revealing:

Q. Was it at all controversial to root for the Raiders, who were just coming into town, over the Rams, who had been the hometown team?

A. Not in my life. [laughs] It wasn’t controversial at all. The Rams just seemed soft. My neighborhood really didn’t identify with that. Coming out of South Central L.A., the Raiders were the team that we can identify with the most. They had the attitude that we had. Some of the Raiders looked like my uncles. They had ‘fros and they had mustaches, beards. We definitely could identify with their players. It was basically just, show up on Sunday and do your thing.

Q. Was that why N.W.A. made the Raiders clothing its uniform?

A. N.W.A. was actually an all-star group — we all had our own style, because we had come from different groups to create NWA. So we felt that we needed to look like we belonged together. This was an age of troop suits and uniforms. Run-DMC were in black and leather. We decided we’re not dressing alike but we’ll at least wear the same color. So we picked black as our color. I’d show up in my Raider gear. Next thing you know, other people start buying Raider gear. It’s just a thing where you looked right, it felt right. It had the same image we had.

Q. The eye patch, the sword . . .

A. Yeah. That pirate mentality, of take what you think is yours.

And as he wrote himself on the website promoting the documentary:

The music, lyrics and images that I created with NWA as a solo artist and as an actor helped turn the Raiders into something more than a football team. It’s been 21 years since we released “Straight Outta Compton,” but to this day, kids all over the world buy Raiders gear, imitate the “Gangster Rap” style and try to connect with the South Central L.A. vibe that we brought to the masses.

At the other end of the spectrum, middle class Americans embraced Raiders rebellion in their own ways, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of “Raider Nation,” the name adopted by the team’s die-hard fans around the world, some of whom express their rabid fealty with their colorful garb akin to The Road Warrior. As Hunter S. Thompson described Raider Nation this way: “The massive Raider Nation is beyond a doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled.”

In 2009, Ice Cube brought the badass heritage full circle in 2009 by recording a song, “Raider Nation,” that celebrates the team.

Later in his life, as the Raiders endured a period of mediocrity that continues today, Davis would be criticized for losing his touch. But he never lost his cool, and his reputation as the American badass was assured.

Ice Cube

Earlier this year, Dana Anderson of Kraft Foods described why we love bad boys so much when she delivered a presentation, “The Bad Boys’ Guide to Digital Bliss,” at the Forrester Research Marketing Forum. She discussed how we love bad boys because they possess style, break the rules, and are just flat-out cool. Al Davis was not only a bad boy, he was a badass because he possessed power and influence.

Marketing consultant and personal friend Glenn Raines put it another way in a Facebook post yesterday when he commented on the Al Davis legacy: “Even upper class suburbanites felt safely rebellious (on any Sunday).”

Or, as Ice Cube commented yesterday, “The Raiders were a rowdy bunch way before NWA. You know, what they showed to us was that you can be yourself and you can still win.  You don’t have to conform always to the mainstream or to the status quo.  You can come out be yourself, own it and you can win.”

2 thoughts on “Al Davis: American badass

  1. I have always disliked the Raiders and Davis, so much so that to this day, I actively strive to keep my fantasy football roster free of their players.

    To me, even though I admit their brand of football is basically the NFL\’s standard-Sunday existence, only exposed, exaggerated and raw, I completely bought into their villain role. When I think of the Raiders, I think of the bruising play of Lyle Alzado and his well documented use of steroids — starting in 1969! \”Just win, baby,\” indeed — no matter what the cost; Alzado died of a brain tumor at 43, and he attributed the tumor to his massive abuse of steroids. It was only after he stopped coaching the Raiders and became a commentator that I would allow myself to warm up to John Madden. And the list goes on…

    To be fair, I also rebelled against the squeaky-clean, almost reverent moniker of the Dallas Cowboys and their insufferable duo of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, who, with the audacity to call themselves \”America\’s Team,\” were just as annoying at the Raiders were.

    Maybe that\’s all just part of the life of a long-suffering Detroit Lions fan. Perhaps there\’s a bit of light at the end of our tunnel, as well.

    RIP, Mr. Davis.

    • Thank you for weighing in, John! I once met an NFL referee when I was taking a sports writing class in college. I asked him whether the Raiders\’s bad-boy image was earned. His reply: \”What gets the Raiders into trouble is their behavior after the whistle blows, not so much how they tackle or block during a play.\” To me, the difference between the Cowboys and Raiders was this: the Cowboys told everyone they were America\’s team. The Raiders showed everyone they were badasses. PS: You might enjoy the movie \”North Dallas Forty\” (based on a book by Peter Gent). The movie skewers the squeaky-clean image of the Cowboys.

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