By Jason Keidel
For a team and town that always spelled impending doom for opponents, the worm has indeed turned.
How odd that the Grim Reaper is scratching on Oakland’s door. The Oakland Raiders invaded and pillaged so many teams over the decades. But now it’s their own gridiron embryo getting the news that the NFL has approved a move to Las Vegas.
The self-styled pirates, the autumn wind and the haunting strings of the philharmonic and John Facenda’s booming baritone announcing another conquest, will be no more. At least not in Oakland, their ancestral home, born 58 years ago. And for 45 of those years Oakland was home base of the Raiders. With that odd tangent in Los Angeles, only to come back home.
So odd. The home that was old and crusty yet perfect for Raiders Nation, the land of Silver & Black and the Black Hole, where grown men with regular jobs and regular families ditched their suits and ties for face paint and swords and shields, spikes jutting from their shoulders, storming the Oakland Alameda Coliseum like the cast of Mad Max. No more.
At the risk of sounding like the very geriatrics whom we all loathed as children, bouncing us on their knees to stories of the old, noble, glory days, there’s something wrong with this.
Sure, there’s a certain symmetry, if not romance, to the vagabond franchise that never felt tethered to the rules, fleeing for the city that symbolizes life on the edge. For a hard-charging, hard-partying franchise setting up camp in a town that practically invented redeye, the forbidden life between dusk and dawn. What happens with the Raiders stays with the Raiders, and what happens in Vegas…
Maybe somewhere the old man, the patriarch, the Brooklyn boy who made the Raiders an essential member of our essential sport, is grinning from the heavens — or smirking from that other place, if you abhor the Raiders. But even Al Davis had to feel something for Oakland.
And how many people actually live and work in Vegas? It’s the most transient place west of Grand Central.
And what kind of home-field advantage do they have? The Raiders are on the rise — a gifted young team that was a Derek Carr injury from perhaps winning a Super Bowl last year. Even if they stay in Oakland, as planned, for the 2017 and ’18 seasons, there will be a growing resentment among the locals, a skeleton crew who will (and should) feel an epic sense of abandonment. They know their beloved Raiders are a rental, only staying because their new crib is being built. Word is if they can leave right after the 2017 season, and play at UNLV, they will.
Forget the gambling. If the Mafia isn’t dead, it’s on life support, and La Cosa Nostra lost its grip on the Strip 30 years ago. The point isn’t point-shaving, or any part of the underworld getting its talons on the talent. Millionaires don’t fix games. Nor is this a slight against Vegas. Few red-blooded Americans have visited Vegas and said that had a lousy time, unless you belched your bank account at the craps table. Just not the Raiders.
It feels fitting that the Miami Dolphins were the lone dissenter. Few teams can be more swathed in nostalgia than the Dolphins, who played in some of the most iconic NFL games against the Raiders, including that “Sea of Hands” game, punctuated by that catch by Clarence Davis.
The Raiders, equal parts icon and iconoclast, were just so synonymous with Oakland. And while we know the NFL is a business, it’s hard to take seriously any sentiment that they put fan priorities at the top of their yearly list. Ask folks in St. Louis about loyalty. As the loyal souls in San Diego about devotion.
For his part, at least Mark Davis put this all on him, and implored the media and masses to leave the players and coaches alone. Derek Carr released a statement saying he can see the smiles on the new fans’ faces. But who are they? Pit bosses? Cocktail waitresses? Blackjack dealers? Where’s this rampant, inherent fan base? Where’s this frothing call for football in Las Vegas? The only reason we’re even talking about this is because one man (Mark Davis) wanted to move there, not because it was a natural fit for 50 years. In fact, Vegas was the most toxic spot in sports for the last 60 years. Now we’re suddenly supposed to believe it’s some utopia?
Even those of us who live 2,900 miles east of Oakland feel their pain. Those of us with no dog in this fight see or smell how rancid this is. Sure, the Raiders did this once already, but that was as much about Al Davis tweaking Pete Rozelle as it was about the palm trees and cool breeze of Los Angeles. And they made that right by moving back. After 15 years of wretched football, the Raiders are finally back and really good. And now they’re leaving.
Only in the NFL does this make sense.
Forgive me, or us, if we’ve morphed into the ‘Get off My Lawn’ guy. But you can’t trade on history, nostalgia and nobility if the whiff of cash trumps fan loyalty. Not even the Raiders can resist a few extra dollars, and a shiny new dome. The autumn wind is now a lap dog, more of a pet than pirate.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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