To the west, a bare, gray hill stands guard over Marriott's Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and on the side of the hill a single word is scratched in gigantic letters: GOD. The hotel corridors are lined with books, but when you reach up to take one, no dice: they're all glued together. It was in this sun-roasted citadel of learning, under God, that the National Football League fought to preserve its constitution, its way of life, last week.
The five days of the NFL's annual meetings had one central focus: the control of a rebel. Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders' managing general partner, who has been a burr in the saddle of the NFL and Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the better part of two decades, had ignored the league's constitution. On March 1 Davis, embroiled in a bitter feud over the Raiders' new lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Commission, signed a memorandum of agreement with the Los Angeles Coliseum, thus moving his team to L.A. and officially confirming a rumor that had been bubbling since midsummer.
However, in doing so Davis hadn't conformed to Article IV, Section 4.3 of the NFL constitution, which calls for a three-fourths vote of the league's 28 clubs before one franchise can shift to another team's area—21 votes, minimum. When the owners voted last week, nine days after Davis had signed the agreement with L.A., there were 22 nays, five abstentions and one not present (the Raiders). The balloting ended the first day's business and rendered the rest of the week anticlimactic.
The normal business—the rule changes, the talk of trades, one of which, Houston and Oakland-Los Angeles swapping quarterbacks Dan Pastorini and Kenny Stabler, was consummated Friday night—was overshadowed by the Al and Pete Show.
Six separate lawsuits, with more on the horizon, had people reeling, and suddenly the NFL had a new vocabulary—preliminary injunction, temporary restraining order, eminent domain. The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter with a law degree to cover the football meetings, but after two days he threw up his hands. "I see 13 more suits that could be filed," he said, "and I'm sure I'm missing a few."
And in his waterside suite overlooking the 5th hole on Rancho Las Palmas' West Course, Davis squinted into the sunshine and said, "Pete's managed to polarize these owners pretty good." Translation: Boy, do they hate me now.
All in all, the meetings had the makings of a two-act melodrama.
ACT I: Quick Injunctive Relief Can Now Be Yours; Cures Pain and Itch of Nagging Lawsuits.
Two years ago, when the Rams announced they would move in 1980 to Anaheim, which is 40 miles south by freeway, the L.A. Coliseum sued the NFL's 28 teams for antitrust violations. Nothing much happened until a live body, the Raiders, appeared to fill that prospective void in L.A. Then the L.A. Coliseum suit grew numbers—$53 million. A federal district court judge in L.A. told the NFL it couldn't vote on Davis' move. That's called a preliminary injunction. Then a higher court in San Francisco told the NFL to forget what the L.A. judge said; the league could vote all it wanted to. That's called a stay.
Now everybody's trying to peel away the layers of paint—the stay, the injunction—to get to the fine-grained wood underneath: Lawsuit No. 1, the biggie, the L.A. Coliseum's antitrust action. When that happens, the Raiders will either go to L.A. or stay in Oakland. It could take a year, two years, who knows?
Lawsuit No. 2 is the NFL's Breach of Contract suit against the Raiders for moving to L.A. without the vote. A state judge told the Raiders they couldn't move; this was a temporary restraining order. The Raiders refused to be restrained, temporarily or otherwise, and they're moving. You can do that with a TRO—ignore it. On March 26 the NFL will try to toughen its TRO by moving it up to the injunction class.
Lawsuit No. 3 is a wild one. The city of Oakland is, in a broad way, trying to have the Raiders condemned, as you'd condemn a piece of land on which you want to build a road; then the city would take over the team by eminent domain. It has declared the Raiders a "public necessity," an action the Raiders' lawyer, Joseph Alioto, has declared "silly." TRO issued, TRO ignored. Hearing date—March 21. Other NFL owners are a little jumpy over this suit. Who would want his club taken over by a city?
Lawsuits 4, 5 and 6 are considered minor league action: an L.A. taxpayers' suit over the use of public funds for the recruitment of the Raiders; an action by some Oakland season-ticket holders; and a suit by two Oakland kids who say their Raider jerseys and helmets are worthless now. Make that last one a Little League action.
ACT II: Five Days That Shook the Desert, or Was It Really a Mirage at Rancho Mirage?
Monday. The afternoon and early evening are devoted to the Oakland Raiders. Small groups caucus in the morning. The Raider contingent is on the veranda in front of Davis' suite. Off to one side are Davis' barbells and his bench for bench-pressing.
"John Madden [the former Raider coach, who now acts as Director of Special Events] just called me from our Los Angeles office," Davis says. "He said that within five days we sold over 30,000 season tickets and 70 of the 99 luxury boxes. We have 10 phone lines. The first day we gave out the number, two minutes later all 10 lit up. Madden said, 'They just put this thing in and it blew already.' Then he started picking up phones and someone was on each line." Davis is asked about the move. "I'm not for anarchy," he says. "I love the NFL. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let those Oakland Coliseum people hold me hostage."
In the main building, Pete Rozelle has ducked out of the meetings for a cigarette. He already looks tired—and it's only Monday. "Al says he's not for anarchy, and I'm sure he wants a stable league," Rozelle says. "He just wants anarchy for himself. I don't know why he didn't seek league support when he was having trouble over his lease with the politicians in Oakland, and I know his trouble was very legitimate then. I don't know why he didn't let the other owners know what was happening.
"When Bob Irsay [the owner of the Colts] had a problem in Baltimore I had a meeting with the governor and the mayor. That was on Oct. 31. They said they'd move on it. [Baltimore is staying put.] Same thing with Minnesota last year. A state senator was fighting the new stadium; he said the commissioner would never let Max Winter [the owner of the Vikings] leave. The Vikings are going to play in a new, domed stadium in 1982. There are ways of working these things out, and if you can't, then you go to the other owners. They know what stadium problems are like. But Al chose to do things his own way. I guess the carrot was just too big down there in L.A."
Now the session is breaking for lunch. Jim Murray, the Eagles' general manager, emerges starry-eyed. "I was just in a three-man caucus with Art Rooney and George Halas," he says. "It was...it was...like hearing Mount Rushmore speak."
At 1:45 the heavy business begins—the report on the litigation and a report by a special five-man fact-finding committee that interviewed the Oakland Coliseum commissioners. Davis isn't present for the lawyers' part of it. "When a team is talking strategy," says New England owner Billy Sullivan, "you don't want the rival coach in the room."
Davis questions the role of the fact finders; he isn't impressed with the facts they have found. Rozelle asks Davis if he wishes to present a motion approving his transfer to L.A. No.
Speeches from the floor are in order. Finally it is George Halas' turn. He is 85 years old and walks with a cane. He had come in leaning heavily on an attendant who is always at his side. They ask him if he wants a microphone. He waves it away. He reminds the gathering of the NFL's long history. He mentions the 1922 Packers, who'd been caught using college players. He reaffirms the sanctity of the NFL constitution. The room is silent. When he finishes, the time is right for a vote on the Raiders' move.
Chuck Sullivan, Billy's 37-year-old son and the Patriots' lawyer, proposes the motion. His brother-in-law is Alioto, 64, the lawyer suing the league for Davis. John Mecom of the Saints seconds the motion. Cleveland votes first. Nay. The rest of the clubs vote alphabetically. All nays, except for abstentions by Cincinnati, L.A., San Francisco and Philadelphia. Mike Robbie, Miami's 32-year-old G.M., the son of owner Joe Robbie, votes yes, but when the voting is completed he changes it to an abstention.
"I voted yes on the question of whether he should be allowed to move," Robbie says. "I thought he should, but within the constitution. I changed it because if that's what the league wanted, I might as well go along."
Fifteen minutes later, Rozelle announces the results. Someone says Davis is waiting outside. He had stormed off in a huff, but now he's back, the lights reflecting off his Super Bowl ring, off his elaborate silver and black bracelet with "Al" inscribed on it, a gift from Jimmy the Greek.
"The room was loaded with lawyers...half a dozen lawyers telling everyone what to do," Davis says. "I didn't have a lawyer in there with me. It's like Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. You ever read that? A hell of a story. We'll see what happens when his thing gets into punitive damages. You'll see how many guys will back down rather than fight."
"I think he'll find that we're committed to go all the way on this thing," Pittsburgh President Dan Rooney says later. "Our constitution, our whole league is at stake."
Tuesday. An NFL club official is sitting by the swimming pool. He is asked to predict the owners' actions in the tough months to come. "They'll remain firm and not back down," he says. And Al Davis' position? "He'll remain firm and not back down."
"What does this mean?"
"Hardball all the way."
Davis is having lunch nearby. He is asked whether he senses a coldness on the part of his fellow owners. "Hell, this isn't like school, where a guy quits the team and no one talks to him," he says. "I still have my friends here."
Wednesday. Tex Schramm of the Cowboys presents the Competition Committee report. Schramm is asked how he felt when Rozelle took Davis off that prestigious committee in 1977. "I said it then, and I'll say it now," Schramm says. "It was a mistake. He was a valuable member of that committee."
Rozelle's removal of Davis had added to the bitterness of the Rozelle-Davis relationship. "Al had used the George Atkinson slander suit against Chuck Noll as an excuse to attack the whole league," Rozelle said. "Atkinson was his straw man, an excuse to air the dirty linen. I didn't want him on any committee."
Thursday. Davis' connection with Allen Glick, who is reputed to have underworld connections and who, along with Davis, owns a piece of an Oakland shopping center, surfaces again. "Same old stuff," Davis says. "A long description of Allen's notoriety and no real link between us. I'm a limited partner at 25%. The thing isn't worth much. It's losing money. It's a hell of a tax shelter. As soon as the tax ramifications are worked out, I'll divest.
"Look, it's a well-to-do shopping center in a black neighborhood, near the Coliseum. It was built by the Teamsters. Allen got a good deal on it—that was before all the notoriety. Some of our former players work there and help run it."
Friday. League business winds down. Pat Lynch, an attorney representing the NFL, takes depositions from Davis at a place called The Spa. Davis is accompanied by Alioto, who has flown in from St. Louis. Earlier Davis was asked if he'd abide by a court ruling forcing him back to Oakland for the 1980 season. "Yeah, I'll have to abide by that, unless I want to go to jail," he said. "Our league doesn't have one yet—unless they're building one right now in Barstow, Calif. That would be a hell of a thing, wouldn't it? Instead of losing a draft choice, they give you a week. Silver and black striped uniforms. Meetings at 2 a.m. Hey, look...I had a pretty good image up to three weeks ago, wouldn't you say? And they did a pretty good job on me. But that guy in China fell from grace, too, and he made a pretty good comeback."
Around the hotel the NFL is packing and getting ready to move on. The man who predicted "hardball" is soaking in the outdoor Jacuzzi but takes time to put the week's events into perspective. "Let's say," he says, "that it's a case of NFL capitalism vs. NFL cannibalism."
On the gray hill to the west, God is still looking down.