‘Al Davis vs. the NFL’ the greatest football rivalry on ESPN

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‘AL DAVIS VS. THE NFL’ ON ESPN

No matter where the NFL’s Raiders end up playing, whether Los Angeles, Las Vegas or someday in London or Mexico City (who knows?), the Oakland Raiders still hold a special place in the hearts of many football fans in Northern California, home of their origins.

Sports fans of all stripes are likely familiar with ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series. One of the greatest rivalries in the history of the National Football League has nothing to do with teams, and ESPN is there to capture the story for posterity.

The real clash of the titans was the conflict between former Raiders owner Al Davis and former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, a battle so intense that the ESPN press release refers to it as “a three-decade-long Shakespearean feud.”

Appropriately, the newest ESPN Films “30 for 30” documentary is titled “Al Davis vs. the NFL,” which airs on ESPN and will be available on ESPN+ immediately after its debut on February 4th.

Considering that both Al Davis and Pete Rozelle have passed away, the film takes a fresh, alternative approach by allowing their spirits to tell their own story by using innovative technology, commonly known as “deepfake,” to narrate in first-person.

Better still are the video clips of both men talking most often to the press, whether it’s the Raiders owner either celebrating Super Bowl victories or airing his grievances or the NFL commissioner commenting on the legal battles.

The film traces the relationship from their early clashes in the American Football League and National Football League wars of the 1960s, prior to their merger, through their tacit reconciliation upon Rozelle’s retirement in 1989.

The nettlesome thorn that aggravated Rozelle was the antitrust lawsuit that Davis filed against the NFL in 1980 when the Raiders owner wanted to move his team from Oakland to Los Angeles, in pursuit of a state-of-the-art stadium, but the league would not approve.

Clips of the legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell record his observation that Al Davis, willing to do anything to beat an opponent, would “fight like Roberto Duran in his prime.”

Of course, the outlaw image was part of the Raiders mystique back in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the nasty on-field rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers in a decade where they would meet several times in the playoffs.

The Raiders lived by the Davis motto of “Just Win, Baby” and “Will to Win.” Davis noted that the adage in professional football is to “take what they give you” but that his team would “go the other way and take what we want.”

Recalling the glorious 1976 season which led to the Raiders winning their first Super Bowl, Davis praised George Atkinson and Jack Tatum who “wrecked fear in the hearts of everyone who has ever played this game in the secondary.”

Steelers head coach Chuck Noll had choice words for Atkinson’s clotheslining of Lynn Swann, claiming that “You have a criminal element in every society and apparently we have it in the National Football League too.” And let’s not forget that Jack Tatum earned the moniker “Assassin.”

Lawsuits didn’t just involve the league. Atkinson filed a $2 million slander suit in San Francisco federal court against the Steelers and Coach Noll. Atkinson is quoted lobbing accusations on Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene for kicking and spitting on players.

Likely more apropos the feud between Davis and Rozelle was Howard Cosell’s reflection on the parallel in literature of the obsession from Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick,” with Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the White Whale.

If Davis is the White Whale, he eventually eluded the Captain because he relocated the team to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but had to wait almost forty years to get his dream stadium in Sin City.

One has to wonder what Rozelle, if he were alive today, would think about Las Vegas hosting the fabled franchise after all the legal hassles in the relocation to the entertainment capital of the world.

The film quotes Rozelle saying that his differences with Davis “developed over business matters not personal,” and that he always “considered Al like a charming rogue,” who had “gone outlaw.”

The most joyous moments for Al Davis were likely the three times that Pete Rozelle had the uncomfortable job of handing the Super Bowl trophy to the Raiders owner, especially when the team became the first wild card to go all the way.

Raider Nation will never be quite the same in Vegas. The team’s state-of-the-art stadium has everything except the atmosphere of the renegade aura of Oakland, exemplified best by the Black Hole and the tailgate parties. The good old days will be missed.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.