The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL, Part III, Chapter 1
When the National Football League convened its 1977 annual meeting on March 28 at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, the football business was on the verge of the most damaging sequence of internal struggles in its history, but again, no one seemed to notice. After three years of open warfare with the World Football League, and with Ed Garvey and the players association, the League’s own politics seemed little more than random skirmishing of a familiar type. The worries expressed by the commissioner for public consumption still focused largely on the war just gone by. ”There have been some negative feelings toward us that began during that turbulent period when new leagues were started,” he pointed out to Sport magazine. ”From that you’ve had player movement, you’ve had strikes, you’ve had a number of things that were tum-offs, but I think we pretty much nipped it in the bud.”
In Phoenix, Rozelle’s opening “annual report and year’s review” was bulging with superlatives. Paid attendance for the previous season had ”exceeded eleven million for the first time in history,” he noted, “while per game average attendance of 56,582 was the third highest in League history. Overall attendance for regular season, post and preseason was 15,071,846, second only to the record year of 1973. ” The numbers for television were just as staggering. Among the records produced were “the highest rated Super Bowl game ever,” the “highest rated Sunday game ever,” the “two highest rated Monday night games ever,” and “the highest rated divisional playoff game ever.” The Neilsen ratings for Super Bowl XI were 31 million homes, an estimated audience of 81.9 million. Despite all those numbers, the greatest accomplishment of the previous year in Rozelle’s eyes was the agreement reached with the NFLPA. “The negotiated agreement,” the commissioner reported, “paves the way for intelligent planning and implementation of steps to solidify the franchises and the League.”
One of the steps already taken to “solidify” the League was the rewriting of Pete Rozelle’s contract as commissioner. The process had begun at a special meeting in the League’s Park Avenue office the previous December. There, the owners had created a three-man committee “to negotiate a new long-term contract” with Rozelle. Leonard Tose was named its chairman. The other members were Gene Klein and Herman Sarkowsky, representing Seattle. In the public statement issued at the time, Tose “emphasized that the club owners said their action should be viewed as a strong reaffirmation of the authority of the commissioner in the operation and administration of all phases of the National Football League.” The committee’s charge was “to meet with the commissioner and work out the specific details.” By January 16, they had: a special meeting in Seattle approved a new ten-year contract for Rozelle by a vote of twenty-seven to one. Though the financial terms were not released to the public, it was described by one owner as “another handsome increase.” To no one’s surprise, the one vote against this “strong reaffirmation” of Rozelle’s authority had been cast by Al Davis.
The relationship between Davis and the commissioner was, by now, volatile at best. Rozelle thought Davis needed a comeuppance, and Davis felt much the same way about Rozelle. The antagonism was not lost on the rest of the League, but most still tended to look past Al Davis toward Carroll Rosenbloom when fearing trouble. Al Davis’s free-lancing continued to be measured on a scale of personal eccentricity rather than political threat, despite Dan Rooney’s repeated warnings to the contrary. Rozelle himself was convinced Davis’s transgressions would have to be dealt with by the commissioner and in no uncertain terms. Pete Rozelle had arrived in Phoenix prepared to begin putting the Raiders’ managing general partner in his place.
First, Rozelle took steps to cover his own flank. Stung by Davis’s Super Bowl barbs about ticket allocation, Rozelle realized that a standardized formula for dividing up Super Bowl tickets would considerably reduce the issue’s explosiveness, and on the first day of the 1977 annual meeting, such a proposal was put forward by Herman Sarkowsky and Billy Sullivan. It was among the “steps to solidify the League” the commissioner had heralded in his opening address. Sarkowsky’s proposal allocated one percent to each of the League’s twenty-six nonparticipants, ten percent to the League office, twenty-four percent to the host city, and twenty percent to each of the participants.
The measure passed twenty-one to seven, reaching the required three quarters majority despite the opposition of Davis, Lamar Hunt, Leonard Tose, Gene Klein, Dan Rooney, and Tex Schramm.
Three days later, Rozelle laid the groundwork for his move on Davis, though the step seemed innocuous at the time. On the morning of March 31, according to the minutes, “the member clubs approved by unanimous vote an expression of policy regarding the standing League committees as follows: The commissioner will in consultation with the conference presidents appoint standing committees of the League and would make replacements on an irregular rotation basis.” Judging from the reported vote, the import of the expression of policy was lost, even on the wily Davis. It was apparently June before Davis heard Rozelle’s footsteps, and then only when Rozelle himself “disclosed that the new owners’ committee assignments were being discussed … and would be drawn and distributed to member clubs shortly.” The March 31 expression of policy formally confirmed the commissioner’s power to “irregularly rotate” owners. When it was passed, Rozelle was already preparing to use that power in a dramatic fashion. His target was Al Davis’s seat on the powerful Competition Committee.
The Competition Committee, chaired by Tex Schramm, was charged with “recommending all changes in rules in the area of on the field competition.” Its purview also included scheduling, roster sizes, and the trading and waiving of players-a majority of the actual mechanics of the football business. One of those most impressed with Davis’s contribution there was Schramm, and the two men had formed a close working relationship. “Tex and Al had a good time working on rules together,” Rozelle remembered, ”but people on a committee should be thinking for the League, what’s best for the League.
Al had dropped out of NFL Charities, was suing another club using George Atkinson as a straw man, and played a role in the failure of the Anderson-Rooney agreement.” In Rozelle’s eyes, Davis was using his role on the committee to ‘ ‘ give validity to positions contrary to League policy.” According to one NFL executive, Rozelle intended to put a stop to it.
Pete Rozelle had made his reputation by getting along, but in spring 1977, he was not looking to smooth things over with Al Davis. The competition committee was the one thing Al Davis wanted that Pete Rozelle could deny him and Rozelle seemed to have no doubts about doing so. If theirs was a fight that Davis made, as Rozelle would later claim, it was also a fight Rozelle chose not to avoid. Such was the intensity of Rozelle’s intentions that he did not bother to consult Schramm, “Mr. Vice-Commissioner,” about them in advance. In all other instances of the ·removal of owners from committees, Pete had always talked it over with Tex. This time, Schramm was left in the dark. When the Cowboys president learned of the move, he would publicly describe it as a “disservice” to his committee and to the League. “Tex,” Rozelle remembered, “was mad about it.” Rozelle had known he would be, but proceeded nonetheless.
At the 1977 annual meeting, Al Davis, like Schramm, was still unaware of what was coming. In principle, however, he no doubt welcomed trading blows with the commissioner. He had bested Rozelle the last time they fought and had great confidence in his ability to do so again. Rozelle’s blow would sting when it finally fell, but the impact would only seem to reinforce Davis’s contempt and belligerence. “He took me off the Competition Committee,” Davis remembered. “Never faced me man to man and told me. Just did it, and then leaked it to the press so that . . . it would be a big story, make him strong.”
In March 1977, Al Davis already assumed the commissioner’s ill will, but made no moves of his own to reduce it. His first Super Bowl victory had not mellowed him. “You’ve got to go on,” he pointed out. “You keep fighting.” He still watched miles of game footage and still saw things his coaches had missed. Even when out to dinner with his wife, Carol, and friends, he often ended up diagraming plays on the tablecloth. Al refused to patronize restaurants in which there was no phone to bring to his table and still spent a huge portion of his day on the line. Davis even bought an interest in a restaurant near the Raiders’ practice field to insure he would always have a place nearby where he could both eat and talk on the phone. To relax, he lifted weights, drank ice water, and attended sporting events. “The dictator hasn’t lost his drive,” The [Oakland] Tribune noted.
Inside the Raider organization, Davis now called all the shots. He still had Ed McGah for a general partner and a dozen or so limited partners as well, but all that meant in practical fact was that he had to pay lip service to an annual meeting. His principal lieutenant was Al LoCasale, a stumpy man who had been with Davis at the San Diego Chargers when Davis was still an assistant coach. “LoCasale was a strong manager,” a Davis acquaintance observed. “He took a lot of the day-to-day weight off Al’s shoulders without being a threat. LoCasale was a smart man who made himself a very strong colonel to Davis’s general. He became Al’s voice to the public when Al himself didn’t feel like talking. As Al rose in stature, he used LoCasale more and more. LoCasale made himself conversant with Davis’s views and made himself a second voice. There was not, however, any doubt about who was in charge.”
Davis’s organizational model was apparently Germanic. “He was a great admirer of Hitler and the Nazis,” Davis’s former partner Wayne Valley remembered. “He and I would have these conversations and he’d call them ‘a great organization’ that ‘drove their point home.’ “
Given that he was Jewish, Davis’s admiration was all the more remarkable. “I didn’t hate Hitler,” Davis explained. “I was captivated by him. I knew he had to be stopped. He took on the whole world.” Al Davis’s religion was, like the rest of him, personal and free-lance. “Al was barely conversant in Judaism,” one Davis intimate remembered. “It was a personal thing that was largely a reaction to his father’s death while he was still in San Diego, before the Raiders. It was somehow a pull on his religious beliefs. He used to say that if he had been there, he could have saved his father. It reaffirmed to Al that if he had been closer to his father, closer to God, he would have known what to do to pull his father through. To my knowledge the only day you can be sure Al will make it to a synagogue is the anniversary of his father’s death.” Whatever the particulars of Al Davis’s theology, it made him neither self-conscious nor timid. “Al was a slick son of a bitch,” one of his friends pointed out. “When he wanted to do something, he found a way to do I sure wouldn’t want to get in a fight with him. He just doesn’t back off.” That Al Davis had no intentions of now smoothing Rozelle’s feathers was apparent on April 1, when the 1977 annual meeting discussed ”the various commitments made to NFL Charities by various clubs.” Davis made it clear he intended to continue ”requesting receipt of royalties” from NFL Properties ”rather than contributing to Charities and would continue in that manner.”
When later asked to explain Davis’s continued refusal, Rozelle offered, “Because I suggested it.”
The rest of the League no doubt agreed with the commissioner’s analysis to one degree or another, but on April Fool’s Day 1977, few were yet prepared to give Davis’s attitude the significance it deserved.