- This Monday night could be the last Raiders home game ever played in the Coliseum—but compared to other NFL teams that have picked up stakes and moved, there’s been barely a peep from the fans. Truth is, the Silver and Black represent an ethos rather than a city, and those who buy into the Raiders will follow them wherever they lead.
The strangest sports story of the year, at least to me, has been the Jon Gruden Experience. It’s not his huge contract, which is so long that it’s scheduled to expire after he does, or his trade of Khalil Mack followed by his complaints that he doesn’t have anybody like Khalil Mack, or his signing of quarterback Nathan Peterman, who never seems to know which players are the ones he’s supposed to throw the ball to. I like Gruden. It’s been a rough start, but it would be cool to see him succeed.
No, the strange part is this: The Raiders announced they were leaving Oakland, and the story of the season has not been that the team is leaving town. It has been Gruden. Thousands of Raiders fans rush to defend Gruden at every turn, and they insist he will eventually succeed, but even if he does, it won’t be in Oakland. It will be in Las Vegas.
Look, fans can do what they want. If they all get Raiders tattoos and Mark Davis haircuts, good for them. And, of course, there are Raiders fans who are furious that the team is leaving and swear they will never root for the team again. I empathize with them. There just aren’t as many as you might expect. The Twitter feed for a group called Forever Oakland has just 825 followers.
When the Browns left Cleveland, the only people in Northeast Ohio who were happy were therapists. Everybody else was a wreck. At the last game, fans pulled seats and entire rows of bleachers out of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. They did not insist that everybody give this Belichick guy more time to build a dynasty.
When the Colts left Baltimore, they famously did so in the middle of the night. The city woke up angry and stayed that way for a while.
When the Raiders leave for Las Vegas, many fans will apparently … follow them there. Again: Not all. It’s possible that this weekend’s final Raiders home game will feature the biggest protest we have ever seen, and also possible that fans are saving up for next year, if the Raiders return to Oakland. (They may have to find another home before the Vegas stadium is ready. Some have suggested San Diego or Fresno State, or perhaps a gap year in Estonia.)
But ask yourself: Have you read more stories this year about Gruden, or unhappy Raiders fans? Is it even close?
There is no simple explanation for this. You can cite a combination of reasons: The Raiders left Oakland once before (for Los Angeles for more than a decade); Oakland Coliseum is an undeniably lousy NFL venue; many blame the city instead of the team.
But there is also this:
The Browns were Cleveland. The Colts were Baltimore. The Raiders are an ethos. They represent something besides a city: They are rebels, the anti-establishment, the team you cheered for if you were in a motorcycle gang, or just liked to imagine being in a motorcycle gang. For many fans, the appeal of the Raiders is not that they are the NFL team from Oakland, but that they are the Raiders, the outlaws, the rowdiest bunch in the most violent team sport.
If you love the Raiders, you can’t just switch to the 49ers or Seahawks and convince yourself it will be the same. This, I think, is what Gruden was trying to say when he told reporters that players come up to him all the time saying they want to be Raiders. It’s not that they want to play for this Raiders team, or even that they want to play for Gruden. The Silver and Black (and the best uniforms in the NFL) represent something to them. If you’re a linebacker who likes to knock people on their ass, you don’t dream of being, say, a Cardinal.
The Raiders are the rare sports team that can honestly say leaving a city is not a betrayal of its brand, but an affirmation of it. They have been willing to pack up and go for almost four decades.
In 1981, Al Davis took his Raiders to Los Angeles and sued the league over his right to do it. Davis was ahead of his time in leveraging cities against each other. In 1987, he received a $10 million deposit to move his team to Irwindale, Calif. If you don’t remember the Raiders playing in Irwindale, it’s because they didn’t. Officials could not meet construction deadlines. But the $10 million was not refundable.
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Three years later, Davis agreed to a 15-year, $602 million deal to return the Raiders to Oakland … and that deal crumbled, too. Oakland still wanted the Raiders back so badly that it sucked all the charm out of its baseball stadium by building Mount Davis in the outfield. The Raiders moved back in 1995. The Oakland mayor at the time, Elihu Harris, called it “truly a historic day. For the first time, a team that has left town has come home. And that team is the Oakland Raiders. The words Oakland and Raiders are synonymous.”
The words NFL and personal-seat-license were also becoming synonymous. The Raiders sold PSLs for as much as $4,000. When sales were slow the next year, they allowed fans to buy tickets without buying PSLs. As you might imagine, the fans who bought PSLs did not get refunds.
Looking back, and knowing what we know now about stadiums, it is surprising that the Raiders stayed in Oakland as long as they did this time. Atlanta’s Braves and Falcons each opened new buildings in the 1990s and have since moved. NFL teams are too valuable to play in venues like the Coliseum. Owners know they can do better. And no owner was as willing to test the market as Al Davis, who died in 2011.
At the one Raiders game I attended this year, the opener against the Rams, there were huge crowds of tailgaters outside the stadium long before kickoff, wearing their gear honoring various Raiders of the past and present—including Mack, who had just been traded. It felt the same way it did during Gruden’s first stint in Oakland. Fans were not there to mourn the team’s departure. For the Raiders, it was always a Commitment to Excellence, not to Oakland.
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