ESPN's 'Al Davis vs. The NFL': a compelling look at controversial figures

Jay Busbee
·5 min read

If you were going to pick one deceased figure from NFL history who would roam the concourses of his team’s stadium as an unquiet spirit, it’d be Al Davis, without a doubt. And now, in a new documentary, he’s doing just that.

It’s tough to conceive of many people who would’ve ignited social media more than Davis. The smirking, scowling, scheming owner of the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland (and now Las Vegas) Raiders spent most of his career terrorizing a league that had been built on intimidation. He cajoled, bullied and bum-rushed his way across fields, courtrooms and executive suites, winning three Super Bowls along the way. You might beat Al Davis, you might lose to him, but you’d stagger away bruised either way.

Davis, who died in 2011, forms the centerpiece of the new ESPN/NFL Films 30 for 30 entitled, simply enough, “Al Davis vs. the NFL.” Set against longtime rival, and former NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, Davis storms his way through the 78-minute documentary, apologizing for nothing, defending every jab and attack. He claims a role as one of the visionaries who set the stage for the modern NFL, making his case in the still-brand-new halls of the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas.

Yep, you read that right. In this documentary, Al Davis walks the halls of Allegiant Stadium, a palace built a decade after he died. How? We’ll get to that in a bit.

(Courtesy NFL Films)
(Courtesy NFL Films)

First, it’s worth sketching out the world that Davis and Rozelle inhabited during the early part of their careers. Davis, a pugnacious kid from Brooklyn, took over the Raiders’ coaching gig at age 34, back when Oakland was still a member of the AFL. He immediately instituted the now-iconic silver-and-black color scheme, along with a “Just win, baby!” mentality.

The Raiders and the rest of the AFL barreled headlong into the NFL a few years later, and that put Davis and Rozelle, ever the company man, at odds from the jump. Their differences ran bone deep.

“This was sort of like a state versus federal viewpoint,” director Ken Rodgers told Yahoo Sports. “Pete was a collaborator, like at the federal level, working in all the clubs’ best interests. Al saw things at the ‘state’ level. He was looking out for what was best for the Raiders’ interests.”

Davis took over ownership of the Raiders in 1972, and from there hurled himself and his team at any and all opponents in every direction. The on-field carnage was devastating — the array of forearms to throats and helmet-snapping hits shown in replays in the documentary would result in multiple career bans today — but equally as significant was the way that Davis hammered away at league mandates, directives and orders.

As Rozelle tried to maintain order and grow a league on the verge of a breakthrough, Davis hauled his team up and down I-5 over the course of decades, enraging multiple California cities and NFL owners. He got what he wanted, but the cost was high.

“To me, the touchstone quote is Mark Davis saying that he learned from his father that sometimes you have to cook with sugar rather than salt,” Rodgers said. “These guys [Al Davis and Rozelle] paid a heavy personal toll. They never really got anywhere, they never resolved it. Maybe if they’d just accepted they were opposites instead of trying to compete over and over, they wouldn’t have had such animosity.”

Which brings us, at last, to the documentary’s organizing principle: deepfake images of Davis and Rozelle, wandering through an empty Allegiant Stadium as voiceover actors tell the two men’s stories … albeit not in their own words.

“It was born out of necessity,” Rodgers said of the tech choice. “I didn’t want to just hear from secondary characters who had their own viewpoint on this relationship, one step removed from first-person [perspective]. I wanted to hear from Al Davis and Pete Rozelle.”

Technology has come far enough that the documentary can present a fairly realistic — though not exact — rendering of Davis and Rozelle. Davis is clad in his trademark white warmup suit, Rozelle in a suit, and the voice actors do a reasonable impression of their sources’ voices as they tell their tales.

“It was very important that we had to cast this in a science fiction-type of realm, returning as spirits,” Rodgers said. “We didn’t want to cross any lines of people thinking these two men were still alive. That’s why we cast it in the modern stadium, that gives us that leeway. These physical figures are fictional, but what they say is based on fact, archive material, transcripts and research.”

The documentary doesn’t quite bring home how much Davis and Rozelle paved the way for today’s monolithic, all-encompassing NFL. But it does bring their story to a conclusion. One of the most striking real-life moments led to the film’s conclusion: when Rozelle tearfully announced his resignation to the league’s owners, Davis was there to embrace him.

“That was surprising to see, after decades of vitriolic fighting against each other, these two men could express tenderness toward each other,” Rodogers said. “If indeed you believe in the afterlife, they’re together right now, looking down at Allegiant Stadium, and they’re probably happy.”

“Al Davis vs. The NFL” premieres Thursday night on ESPN.

Pete Rozelle presents the Super Bowl XV trophy to Al Davis in 1981. (AP)
Pete Rozelle presents the Super Bowl XV trophy to Al Davis in 1981. (AP)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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