RealClearSports: The Raiders Mystery

By Art Spander

ALAMEDA, Calif. – He used to be the most fascinating maverick in sports, a man who cared about nothing except success and for so many years had that success.

“Just win, baby’’ was his mantra, and to hell with how he played the games. Of football. Or of life.

Al Davis owns the Oakland Raiders and in a way owned pro football. He never met a rule he didn’t believe couldn’t be broken.

The more that people, the league, the consultants, told him what couldn’t be done, throwing deep, moving a franchise, the more intent Al was on doing it.

The Raiders were the NFL’s original bad boys — in image, not record. If the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s were America’s Team, the Raiders were Satan’s Team. Davis relished the idea.

“I love to go to a visiting stadium and hear the fans boo us,’’ Davis said, or words to that effect. “It is better to be feared than loved. It’s the Raiders’ mystique.’’

The mystique has ebbed into mystery. And agony.

Nobody fears the Raiders these days. Except their own fans.

As the franchise a couple of days ago was involved in what officially is called an “organized team activity,’’ or off-season workout, Davis was out of sight, upstairs in the headquarters building.

But he never was out of mind.

The Raiders have been losing it. They haven’t had a winning season since 2002, when, they actually went to the Super Bowl, getting crushed by a Tampa Bay team led by Jon Gruden, who the year before had been the Raiders’ coach.

The question asked too often these days is, has Al Davis lost it?

In a month, on the Fourth of July, Davis will be 80. A leg problem has required him to use a walker, making him seem even older. Yet he is very much in control, at least by one definition.

“I am the Raiders,’’ Davis reminds those who want him to relinquish the power. He still calls the shots. He still runs the draft. He still hires the coaches, and thus still fires the coaches. Beginning with 2002, he has hired and fired four coaches and then during last season brought in a fifth, Tom Cable, who hasn’t yet been fired.

Al Davis is a football man. He coached the Raiders in the early 1960s, briefly became commissioner of the AFL before it was merged into the NFL and for more than 40 years has been owner, general manager, dictator, czar and everything else possible.

The Raiders could be described as football incestuous, Davis rarely going outside the organization for a new face or new ideas. Two of the three times he has done so, bringing in Mike Shanahan to coach in the 1980s and Lane Kiffin in 2007, ended up in bitter divorces. Shanahan still claims the Raiders owe him back pay. Kiffin was dispatched “with cause,’’ which is about as nasty as it gets.

A football team is many parts, but the single most important of those parts, as in any business, is the individual at the top.

Davis knows more football than half of the NFL combined. One wonders if his concepts work in 2009. No less significantly, do the players used to employ those concepts meet the standards of 2009?

Two years ago, Oakland made a 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Russell virtually can reach the moon with his throws, the extreme of the Al Davis philosophy of going deep. But he struggles to throw short. To read defenses. To be a leader.

When practice ended the other morning, the media chased after Russell. He’s making a ton of money, which in a way is incidental. All anyone cares about is whether he’ll make an impact.

LeBron-like, Russell refused to wait for an interview. In some ways, he couldn’t be blamed. How often need he respond to the same doubts?

In other ways, he could be blamed. Is JaMarcus learning the offense? Is he, as demanded of the very first man selected in any draft, capable of bringing a team back to glory?

That very question has been asked again and again of Al Davis. His appearance and the Raiders’ failings over the past several seasons give the critics their ammunition. He’s ancient, we’re told. His football style is ancient.

His mind, however, is sharp. That he walks slowly doesn’t mean he can’t think fast. He can remember players and games from the 1970s. He knows systems. He knows schemes. Maybe his own major fault is he doesn’t know how to – or doesn’t want to – delegate authority.

Davis admits mistakes, signing DeAngelo Hall, drafting Robert Gallery, who, despite size and potential, was incapable of becoming the blind-side tackle. But Davis won’t admit he no longer can create a champion.

Some despise Al. I admire him. He won’t give in or give up. Who can’t appreciate staying power, in a team or a man?
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009

Randy Johnson makes the Bay Area smile

As the man himself said, “It’s nice to have this moment.’’ More than nice, it was exciting. It was uplifting. For Randy Johnson. For his family. For baseball. No less significantly, for the Bay Area.

Maybe this hasn’t been a complete sporting wasteland. The Sharks had the best record in hockey before they collapsed as normal in the playoffs. Cal football had a winning record. But mostly, we’ve been through tough times.

The Giants, the A’s, the 49ers, the Raiders and the Warriors all have had a losing season, the 49ers and Raiders multiple losing seasons. We needed something to make us smile, to make us cheer. To make us remember the enjoyment inherent in sports.

On Thursday, we remembered.

On Thursday, Randy Johnson won his 300th game. He did it in a San Francisco Giants uniform. A carpetbagger, in a way. A “rent-a-player.’’

A newcomer who is an old-timer. But who also grew up in the region, Livermore, and has deep ties even if for the previous 20 of his 21 years he played in Montreal, Seattle, Houston, Arizona and New York.

The last memorable occasion was Barry Bonds’ 756th home run. Steroids didn’t matter. His personality didn’t matter. Barry drove one to centerfield and the strobe lights flashed and the crowd screamed. The ordinary had become the extraordinary.

Now, finally, another thrill. We’d been spoiled through the years, the Catch, Baron Davis’ dunk against Dallas, the Raiders’ Sea of Hands, Canseco’s blast into the upper desk in Toronto.

Do you recall Dave Stewart out-staring and out-pitching Roger Clemens? The instant the Giants captured the pennant in 2002?  Now we can recall 45-year-old Randy Johnson, laconic, iconic, bringing one home for Northern California.

“It was a long road,’’ Johnson said on the Comcast postgame show. “If there is one word to sum it up, I persevered.’’

Not just on a rainy afternoon in Washington, when the 6-foot-9 Johnson made history by becoming the 24th pitcher and sixth lefthander to reach 300 victories. But through a career in which, because of his size, he had to perfect mechanics and later had to come back from injuries.

Baseball, it’s been said, is less a team sport than a series of concerts by the artists. Still, when a baseball player helps himself, with a well-pitched game, with three hits in four at bats, he is helping his team. All of Johnson’s wins meant 300 victories for the clubs on which he played, number 300 coming for the benefit of the Giants.

“I’m exhausted,’’ conceded Johnson, who came out with a 2-1 lead after six, watched the defense make some spectacular plays to retain the advantage and then sat in the dugout when the often hitless Giants picked up three runs in the top of the ninth.

“I had a senior moment when I thought I was 25,’’ said Johnson. “Just think about it. I’m coming on 600 games.’’

Johnson’s son, Tanner, in a Giants uniform, was with his father. “I think the coolest moment has to be able to share it with a son,’’ Randy said.

“I wish my dad was here,’’ he added, referring to his late father. “But I haven’t been able to think about that for the last 17 years. I hope he was watching from up above.’’

The rest of us were watching from down here. And from everywhere. At Nationals Stadium, everyone seemed to be a Johnson fan, even those in red Washington caps. Baseball fans appreciate records, whether set by their team or the opposition.

Maybe Randy deserved a better stage, a larger crowd, but scripts are not to be prepared in sport. Everything is extemporaneous. You never know what might happen. Or what might not happen. Any hope that number 300 would be recorded at home, at AT&T, was incidental. You take what you can get.

Johnson went out and took this one, pitched beautifully. Which is what is needed for the Giants, a team that is last in hitting.

“I came here,’’ Johnson said of joining San Francisco, “to help this team turn things around.

“The one thing a pitcher has control over, essentially, is strikeouts. He has no control over wins that he gets. But wins always outweigh the strikeouts. I wanted to be known for winning games rather than for strikeouts.’’

He’s known for both. And in the Bay Area he’ll be known for an afternoon when we remembered the excitement of a magic moment. Welcome to the club, Randy.

RealClearSports: Scandals Are as Old as College Sports Itself

By Art Spander

One autumn day in ’69 – 1869 – young men from Rutgers and Princeton engaged in what they called a football game. That surely was the last time real students were called upon for such competition.

College sport these days is played by people chosen for the task – “student athletes,” as the NCAA describes them – and while they may go to class and even pass with flying honors (as compared to passing the football), they were brought in to win games. Or matches.

It is an inescapable fact: the better the athlete, the better the team. Which is why we have this little contretemps at Memphis, wherein the best high school basketball player in the nation a couple of years back, Derrick Rose, was readily enrolled, even though he may have cheated on his entrance exam.

And why the University of Southern California finds its reputation in danger on charges that Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush broke rules by accepting cash, a car and free housing, and charges that basketball star O.J. Mayo received improper payments from the school’s coach, Tim Floyd.

The Sorbonne doesn’t have a home-and-home series with Cambridge. Or anyone. There is no such thing in Europe as intercollegiate sports. Or high school sports. Kids go to school to study and learn. If they play games, it is for a club.

But this is the good old U.S. of A., where the idea is to fill stadiums and arenas, leading to hours of television coverage, all of which is accomplished by bringing in the Reggie Bushes and Derrick Roses. They purported themselves well, too, the Trojans and Tigers both reaching national championship games with Reggie and Derrick in the lineup.

Here, we stick decals of our school on the back window and slogans – “How ’bout them dogs” – on the back bumper. In Britain, rear-window decals identify the dealer where the car was purchased. How ’bout them cylinders?

It’s all a matter of talent. There’s a kid, runs the 40 in 4.4 and scored 30 touchdowns as a prep. Or maybe he’s 6-9 and averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds. Intellectually, he’s not Albert Einstein. But your rival is chasing him. And as the sports sociologist Harry Edwards points out, “If you don’t get him, they’ll get him and use him against you.”

So Kelvin Sampson becomes a little too aggressive after coming to Indiana.

So a long while ago, SMU gets the so-called Death Penalty for a zillion violations, but with Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the Mustangs did beat Texas, meaning it was worth it to the alums.

So even Harvard – Harvard! – is accused of a number of questionable practices to work around NCAA rules by hiring an assistant basketball coach who had been traveling and playing pickup games with potential athletes.

It’s not going to change. Ever. Penn State has expanded its stadium to more than 100,000. Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio State all are in six figures. You think those schools, you think any school in big time sports, might be scouring PE classes for a quarterback? Or a point guard?

“Football,” said a man named Elbert Hubbard, “is a sport that bears the same relationship to education that bullfighting does to agriculture.”

Ole! And back at you.

“A school without football,” said Vince Lombardi, “is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.” As if Vince, who went from Fordham to coach in the NFL, knew anything about medieval study halls. Now, blocking and tackling, that was different.

What will happen to USC or to Memphis is probably nothing. USC has been under a cloud for months – Bush has been on the New Orleans Saints since 2006 – and already Memphis is in full denial, insisting it found no proof Rose cheated on the exam. Derrick, of course, joined the NBA as soon as possible.

The people who buy the season tickets are remarkably unmoved by any and all accusations. They don’t care how you win, they just want you to win. And to hell with anyone looking for trouble.

It was in 1976 when Frank Boggs of the Oklahoma City Times, acknowledged to be the best sportswriter in the state, wrote a story that another NCAA investigation of the University of Oklahoma’s football program was under way.

Boggs, merely the messenger, not the cause, was harassed, threatened and had to have police protection. A caller said he would burn down Boggs’ home. Eventually, Boggs moved to Colorado.

Jack Taylor, who shared the byline with Boggs, had done pieces on the Mafia and corruption in government, but said public reaction to the football story was “much more controversial” than anything he ever had written.

People don’t want the truth. They want championships.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009. 

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© RealClearSports 2009 

SF Examiner: Odds of 49ers staying in S.F. are slim to none

SAN FRANCISCO — So what do you think of the Santa Clara 49ers? The training facility is in Santa Clara. The presumptive new stadium will be in Santa Clara.

Why then should they ever be called the San Francisco 49ers again?

We nearly had the Fremont A’s, who still think of themselves as the San Jose A’s. They remain determined to pull a fast one on Oakland, which put a lot of money into the Coliseum, but is a city without cachet.

For the moment, it’s an NFL team going south — literally.

San Francisco used to be the place where the action was. It had the bridges, the little cable cars and the Niners, the first major sports franchise in Northern California.

It also, besides the Giants, had the Warriors. Yes, they were the San Francisco Warriors before playing a few games in San Diego, being given the mythical title of Golden State and then relocating along the Nimitz.

At least the Warriors — Team Dysfunction (And hasn’t that surreptitious e-mail from HQ been a hoot and a half?) — are only a BART ride away from The City, where they once played. And where the Niners will have once played.

True, until Jed York puts his Gucci shoes on a gold-plated shovel in one of those photo-op poses and construction symbolically is underway, the stadium remains only a talking point, though a cost of $937 million is an expensive talking point.

A lot of promises have been made, but the good citizens of Santa Clara must give their approval, and, hey, even the bottom-end of Silicon Valley has an independent streak.

You know there’s going to be opposition, because in Northern California, unless it’s a vote to save salamanders or marijuana fields in Mendocino, there’s always opposition.

Back in the late 1990s, after San Franciscans, at least those who actually voted, passed a $100-million measure that seemingly enabled the Niners to get a new facility at the old location, the team was going to have a combination 
stadium-shopping center at Candlestick.

But first the team went semi-bad, then was snatched away from benevolent owner Eddie DeBartolo, who according to the courts was more than semi-bad, and taken over by the man Eddie wouldn’t invite to his own parties, brother-in-law John York.

About the only thing Eddie and John had in common was the undeniable belief the Stick was a pig sty and not a very pretty place.

Nor were the Niners a very pretty team the last few years.

In the 21st century, it became apparent San Francisco had neither the political maneuvering (come back Willie Brown, wherever you are) or the financial support to keep its team within the city limits.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, with the assistance of one-time Niners executive Carmen Policy, couldn’t make a go of it, and so the Niners are destined to flee one city named after a saint to another.

“It’s a great deal,” said Patricia Mahan, the mayor of Santa Clara.

You expect her to be critical?

Good riddance, then, Niners. The City will still have the Giants and AT&T Park, the anti-pig sty. Things could be worse.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 

Magic, Serena are in and Cavs are way out

The Magic is in, and the Cavs are way out. Serena is in, meaning her usual controversy as well as the fourth round of the French Open. And Venus is out. Interesting enough weekend for you?

The Lakers had to love it. Without Phil Jackson voicing a single complaint, they now have the home-court advantage for the NBA finals.

ABC-TV has to rue it. Kobe vs. LeBron is simply another failed dream.

Tennis has to appreciate it. Serena Williams is what America finds irresistible, an unending drama, the true reality show.

LeBron James is a great basketball player. If he weren’t, the Cavaliers would have been swept by the Orlando Magic, instead of losing the Eastern Conference finals in six games.

What Nike’s going to do now with that commercial of Muppet-like characters representing a dueling LeBron and Kobe is anyone’s guess. What Cleveland’s going to do now that its team, which had the best record of the regular season, laid a dinosaur-sized egg is everyone’s guess.

LeBron leaves for the Knicks when his contract is up in another year. You want to hang around a team that isn’t a team, but just one magnificent player who virtually by himself could win two games in the playoffs but found it impossible to win four?

Venus Williams played, well, about as poorly as the Cavs, losing on Friday to someone you’ve never heard of, Agnes Szavay, 6-0, 6-4. Yes the multiple Grand Slam winner, the No. 3 seed, got bageled, which is what some of the tennis folk call a shutout. Only the 14th time in 662 matches Venus was blanked in a set.

But Serena wasn’t to put up with that nonsense. She not only rumbled back from her usual slow start on Saturday, over there on the clay in Paris, to beat Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 (don’t they have a limit of three names in tennis?), Serena accused Martinez Sanchez of cheating.

Now, there’s a lady you have to like. Enough of this etiquette stuff.

In the first set, Serena smashed a ball at Sanchez, and most people, including Williams but not her opponent, thought the ball never touched Sanchez’s racket but instead banged off her right arm and dropped on Williams side of the net.

Sanchez won the point, even though the rules dictate that if the ball hit her body, the point belonged to Serena.

Serena first apologized for driving the ball at Sanchez, the normal procedure, but then added about the apparent cheating, “I’m going to get you in the locker room for that. You don’t know me.’’

The rest of us do. Serena has the toughness needed to be a champion, the toughness the Cavaliers only wish they had.

The Orlando Magic aren’t a lot of frauds, not with people such as Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis. But neither are they supposed to be facing the Lakers.

The script was LeBron against Kobe, this year’s MVP against last year’s MVP. Nice try.

Some of the people out there, the reasonable thinkers, had the smarts to point out that teams with one superstar never win championships, that Michael had Scottie, that Kobe had Shaq. LeBron’s cast didn’t provide that balance.

Amazing didn’t happen in Cleveland. Orlando happened in Cleveland. And to Cleveland. Orlando, in truth, was relentless. If it wasn’t for LeBron’s ridiculous shot with no time on the clock in game two, the Magic would have taken four straight games.

The Lakers will not take four straight from Orlando, but they will win another title. After its inability to show anything resembling Serena Williams’ gutsy style in the first few games against the Nuggets, L.A. came through with a vengeance to take the conference title.

You have to believe that the Lakers finally have figured out what is required. And, even with their sometimes listless play against Houston and then Denver, the Lakers did end up winners, which is all that matters.

Kobe seems particularly focused. He’s the man now. Considerable help from Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, but Kobe Bryant controls the game. He doesn’t need to share the basketball and for certain he won’t have to share attention.

No LeBron. But a very enticing NBA final. And should Serena continue another few matches, the final of the French Open could be just as enticing.