Today’s NFL needs someone it can’t have, someone with the audacity to do the right thing even if it’s not the popular thing.
It needs a team owner with enough vision to see what’s coming in the world beyond football, understand its importance, and the backbone to act in the interest of the greater good.
The NFL needs Al Davis. Another Al Davis. The next Al Davis.
For all the public support Colin Kaepernick is getting from such players as Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett, his desire for an opportunity to compete for a job in the NFL requires a team owner willing to punch a hole in the convention that paralyzes fellow owners.
Kaepernick needs an owner with enough independence to reject the league’s dogma, capable of considering his ability to play quarterback but also admiring his courage to protest the inequality we all see but only some acknowledge.
If only a current owner had Al’s social conscience.
If Davis were still jabbing at shadows and raising hell, Kaepernick wouldn’t be awaiting a call from the Ravens or the Dolphins or any of the other quarterback-starved NFL teams that may -- or may not -- be pondering placing that call.
He’d be in Napa, in training camp with the Raiders.
We say this not simply because Davis liked what he saw of Kaepernick as the Raiders prepared for the 2011 draft. Hue Jackson, Oakland’s head coach at the time, insists that Davis had zeroed in on Kaepernick as a second-round pick -- only to have the 49ers move up and grab him. Davis was enamored of the powerful arm, deceptive mobility and visible leadership on display during four years at the University of Nevada-Reno. He also was impressed by Kaepernick’s three-sport stardom in high school in Turlock.
But it’s Al’s social convictions that would have opened the door for Kaepernick now, in the wake of a season during which his pregame demonstrations against police brutality wound up shoving him outside the NFL bubble.
No owner in NFL history was more comfortable going his own way than Davis, who died in October 2011 in the early-morning hours of Yom Kippur. He would seek solutions in places where others saw only problems.
Davis lived by a code that didn’t always pay off, but from which he never wavered. If he thought you could play, he gave you a chance. If he thought you could play but also stood for the right thing, he’d jump at giving you a chance. He stood by his own principles, sometimes to his detriment, while holding in high esteem those who believed in fairness and were loyal to those beliefs.
Does that not describe Kaepernick?
His plea for racial/ethnic equality is something for which Davis often fought, most notably in the 1960s. He understood Muhammad Ali’s greatest objective and personally did his part to advance it.
Davis was the first owner to hire a Latino head coach, Tom Flores, the first modern-era owner to hire an African-American head coach, Art Shell (who was hired twice) and the first to hire a female CEO, Amy Trask. As AFL commissioner, Davis hired the first black game official, Aaron Wade, and the first black league administrator, Brad Pye.
Yes, Al basked in the glory of being first. He liked being considered an innovator, but he loved his team and his players.
During a time of legislated racial segregation in parts of America -- and NFL teams employed a quota system regarding men of color -- Davis was brazenly recruiting athletes from historically black colleges and universities. When Raiders players came to him with objections over segregated lodging for a 1963 preseason game in the Deep South, Davis took action. Stood on principle. Moved the game to Oakland.
“He was the kind of man who was aware of the things we were facing and stood by us and supported us,” Raiders legend Clem Daniels, a member of that ’63 team, said several years ago. “I don’t know how many owners would have done that.”
Understand, Al Davis adored America. When he stood for the anthem, he did so while mouthing the words, with his right hand placed over his heart. He was a military buff. His patriotism was above reproach.
A conservative in some ways, Davis was progressive in others. He acknowledged and reacted to injustice. Al in his own way fought to improve the country he loved.
Which brings us back to Kaepernick. Is that not his goal?
The wink-and-nod campaign among owners to disenfranchise Kaepernick is presumably rooted in, of all things, the fear of alienating fans. Our fans are calling. Our fans are complaining. Our fans might boycott.
This is deep-fried dung, and the players know it. They can see right through it. They know it’s a deliberate plot of owners, most of them staunchly conservative, that like their boys to shut up and play. That’s why some of them are speaking out.
Sherman pointed out that NFL owners, by isolating Kaepernick, are sending a message to all players to “stay in your place.” Bennett, one of Sherman’s teammates in Seattle, points out the hypocrisy of owners embracing convicted felons but unable to find a place for a multi-skilled quarterback that once led a team to the Super Bowl and has a clean rap sheet.
Jenkins described team owners as “cowards.”
Al Davis was many things, but never a coward.
After making a succession of bad choices with coaches and players that dragged the Raiders to the bottom of the league, he spent the last years of his life trying to right his own wrongs. For most of his years, he was the owner whose teams won the vast majority of its games even while separating himself from the craven, and sometimes profoundly racist, instincts of his fellow owners. He didn’t care what they thought. His decisions were based on his beliefs.
Davis would know Kaepernick is good enough to get a chance, and he would believe the reasons behind his protest are worthwhile and even, gulp, honorable.
There is, thus far, no such NFL owner in 2017. What we have had is 32 individuals pacing the floor with heads down, sneaking peeks at each other, with not a single backbone among them.