In Pete Rozelle's neat, made-for-TV National Football League, stories like this don't come along every day. To be frank, they don't come along every decade. Facing an extraordinary crisis, Rozelle has turned to Al Davis to help heal the wound.
Rozelle's biggest headache in nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner has been—until a few weeks ago. anyway—his court battles with Davis, who in 1982 won the right to move his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles over the league's objections. But last week in Chicago, Rozelle put aside his feelings toward Davis in the face of the worst split among the league's owners in his tenure: the decision of 11 of them to block the election of Rozelle's putative successor, Saints president Jim Finks, because they didn't like the way the league's search committee had done its job. Looking for a peacemaker, Rozelle, to his credit, named Davis to a new search committee, which hopes to present three or four candidates for the job within a month.
For 12 years—ever since he took the side of Raider defensive back George Atkinson when Atkinson was accused by Steeler coach Chuck Noll of being part of a "criminal element" in the game—Davis has been excluded from NFL committees. After his court victories against the league, he took millions from the other owners in settlement of his damage claims. He even testified for the USFL in its antitrust suit against the NFL. But bringing him back into the fold could be the smartest thing the league has done in years.
The NFL needs Davis. It needs his ideas, his energy and his love for the sport. It also needs his stature. The leaders of the dissident owners who blocked the election of Finks as commissioner in early July trust Davis. If some older owners don't understand his value, they should be able to understand that he is not going to go away.
July 30, 1989
How did the NFL get to the point of needing Davis? When Rozelle announced in March that he planned to step down as soon as a successor could be found, he named a search committee composed of six good old boys, executives with 187 years of pro football experience among them. Some newer owners were miffed that they were excluded and were even more indignant when, in June, they learned that only one candidate, Finks, would be nominated to succeed Rozelle. The disaffected owners formed a voting bloc of 11, enough to prevent any candidate from obtaining the necessary 19 of 28 votes.
In Chicago, where the owners gathered on July 18 to approve the formation of an NFL-sanctioned international league, Rozelle invited three of the old guard and three of the dissidents to his hotel suite. They talked until 1 a.m., but things only got worse. The dissidents threatened to create their own search committee. Finally, at 1:30 a.m., Giants president Wellington Mara, a member of the search committee, was left in the room alone with Rozelle. He pulled out a copy of Robert's Rules of Order. According to Robert's, once an appointed committee issues its final report, the committee is automatically disbanded. Why not, said Mara, call the search committee's report recommending Finks its final report? Then Rozelle could pick a new committee, appeasing the upstart owners.
Later that day, after the owners reconvened, Browns owner Art Modell rose to speak. The new owners were unhappy with Modell's virtual monopoly of the league's negotiations with the TV networks. Modell announced he was quitting the TV committee to allow, if the league wished, a newer face to deal with the networks. The most ardent of Rozelle loyalists, Modell has at times been one of Davis's bitterest enemies. But when Modell finished, Davis said to the group, "This is crazy. We need Art. What's the matter with us?"
Soon afterward, Rozelle asked for a short break. He circulated among the owners and saw cracks in the insurgent bloc—Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Victor Kiam of the Patriots said they wouldn't be part of any concerted voting group. When the meeting resumed, Rozelle announced the dissolution of the old search committee and the creation of a new one. It would consist of two original members (Mara and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt), two dissidents (Ken Behring, the owner of the Sea-hawks, and Mike Lynn, G.M. of the Vikings) and two neutral representatives (Redskins executive vice-president John Kent Cooke and Davis).
It's fitting that one of Rozelle's last acts—putting Davis on the committee to select the man to lead the league into the next century—was another deft compromise. Davis as healer just might work. As Davis was leaving the meetings, he stopped to speak with Dan Rooney, an NFL establishment figure and the son of the Steelers' founder. Art Rooney. Davis smiled and told Rooney warmly, "You're getting to be just like your father, God bless you."
Nice having you back inside, Al.