As it turned out, Steve Jobs wasn’t the only Bay Area pioneer to pass away last week. Al Davis, owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders for thirty-five years and one of the league’s foremost leaders since its inception in 1970, died early last Saturday morning at the age of 82. The posthumous outpouring of love and praise from all corners of the media painted a picture of Davis as a universally beloved man, a monumental figure who was a blessing to all the lives he touched in his six decades in pro football.
Yet for the last 20 years of his life, Davis was easily the most reviled figure in the NFL. He ruled over the Raiders with an iron fist, firing and hiring on a whim and exerting authoritarian control over every aspect of the franchise — all while on-field performance plummeted to embarrassing lows. His penchant for vindictiveness was legendary; Davis even managed to trade his head coach, John Gruden, for $8 million in 2002 because of a personal dispute even though Gruden had taken the team to the playoffs the year before.
Over time he came to be seen not as the maverick he had been in the ’60s and ’70s but rather as a senile old man entirely out of touch with the modern game, too stubbornly proud to let go, and the mocking grew louder with every nonsensical roster move or abrasive quote to the public. Skewering Davis became a sort of pastime for the press, and his patented silver and black Raiders jumpsuit, resembling something from a parody of an ’80s aerobics video, didn’t help matters much. The currently 3–2 Raiders, the press insisted, were winning in spite of their owner, not because of him.
This is the only Al Davis I’ve ever known. His reputation as visionary rebel was long gone by the time I was able to even spell the word Raiders. So you can imagine my surprise this week at the deluge of admiration from the very same men and women who took such pleasure in using Davis as their punching bag.
It’s not about which Davis is the “correct” version, because they both are. The league owes much of its present popularity to his fearless decision-making, including the creation of the league itself with the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. But the backtracking done by the press and blogosphere in the past few days would make Michael Jackson blush.
The very things Davis was being criticized for prior to his death were now being used to portray him as a revolutionary figure. The same media that criticized his unhealthy obsession with the deep passing game now wrote that that very obsession had changed the modern game as we know it. The latter portion of Davis’s career can’t simply be blotted out; the notion that one day he is a man running his franchise into the ground but 24 hours later he is an untouchable is troubling to me.
Why should the obituaries and remembrances put forth in the media be required to be unanimously glowing? I understand the need to respect the rawness of the moment, which is why I’m not advocating that reporters actively seek out a reason to make a negative comment. Still, why do we refuse any honest and grounded assessments of a man’s public career? If there are legitimate critiques of Davis’s ownership — as the last decade or so attests — why are they suddenly off-limits in an account of his tenure?
Despite the hyper-connected and informed culture of today, sportswriters are, ostensibly at least, the men and women charged with delivering accurate and reliable news to fans. They aren’t delivering the eulogy at Davis’s funeral, yet they insist on acting as such. No doubt they should be sensitive to making a malicious attack on someone who can no longer defend him or herself, but journalists should not be seen swaying with the wind so flagrantly and insultingly.