Since mid-March, the NFL's rebel has been sitting in a tiny Los Angeles courtroom, decked out in black jacket and silver tie, relishing his role as a troublemaker. Raiders owner Al Davis has always been a fighter, but as he takes the stand this week in his $1 billion lawsuit against the NFL, it's increasingly apparent he's in a fight he has little chance of winning.
Davis says the league unfairly thwarted a 1995 deal he was pursuing for a stadium in Los Angeles, forcing him to move the Raiders from L.A. back to Oakland. Further, he contends that he still holds territorial rights to the L.A. market because he left unwillingly. That's a crucial issue, given that the NFL badly wants a team in L.A. and that Davis has often said he wants to return the Raiders to Southern California.
For its part, the NFL says that it retains the rights to Los Angeles and that it did everything it could to facilitate the stadium deal. League lawyers assert that after Oakland offered the Raiders $53-9 million in '95, simple greed drove Davis north.
Davis's past legal conflicts with the NFL hang heavy over this case. In 1983 he won $49-2 million in damages after arguing that the league had violated antitrust laws when it tried to stop his '82 move from Oakland to L.A. Even worse in his fellow owners' eyes, in '86 Davis testified against the NFL in the USFL's antitrust suit. Giants owner Wellington Mara has referred to his rogue acts as "atrocities."
Even if the other owners weren't against him, Davis would face an uphill battle. He must convince the court that he owns something, the L.A. market, he never paid for and that the NFL interfered with a stadium deal he abandoned. The league also has considerable financial strength at its disposal. To cover the legal costs of the case, each owner—including Davis—is paying [1/32] of the bill, not a hardship considering the league's vast television monies.
Adding to the intrigue, Davis is involved in two other seemingly fruitless lawsuits. He's battling to get out of his lease at Oakland's Network Associates Coliseum, claiming the stadium authority reneged on guarantees that home games would be sellouts. (Even with the Raiders' playoff run last year, full houses have been rare.) He's also suing the NFL over damage he claims it has done to him by allowing other teams to incorporate black into their uniforms and by approving a Buccaneers logo that resembles the Raiders'. Legal experts give Davis little hope of prevailing in either case.
Where does all this leave the mercurial Davis? He has always been a maverick, ready to brandish his rebellious image to stoke his team's us-against-the-world attitude. However, his latest crusades will earn him only animosity from the league, from the city of Oakland and from Raiders fans who will most likely see little reason to trust him again. Though he may take solace in the Silver and Black's return to glory, in the courtroom Davis needs to do a better job of picking his fights.