Al Davis Was a Complicated Person
Published on October 10, 2011 by Sara Foss

One of the things I enjoy most when a person dies is the inevitable whitewashing of all their bad behavior. From reading the tributes to Steve Jobs, you'd think he was Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus all rolled into one. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed reading about his enthusiasm for LSD so much. (Gizmodo has more on why Jobs wasn't perfect.)

The death of Al Davis, the extremely flawed owner of the Oakland Raiders, has inspired the sorts of tributes you expect when someone dies. But I enjoyed these tributes. In his later years (i.e., when I started paying attention to NFL football), Davis was a laughingstock and disgrace, a petty tyrant whose poor management had basically run his team into the ground. So it was nice to learn about Davis' generous side, his rule-breaking side, his willingness to take on his fellow NFL owners, and promote women and minorities. Nevertheless, I appreciated this Slate/Deadspin piece, because it has the temerity to ask if one of the things that made Davis successful was his "assholery."

Here's an excerpt:

"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."

Over at Et tu, Mr. Destructo, Mobutu Sese Seko has a typically interesting take on Al Davis, writing:

"What's funny is that (Davis) 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."
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