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?