The Oakland Raiders are one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, biggest headaches, and greatest opportunities.
Decades after legendary Raiders owner Al Davis moved the team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back, his son Mark has been flirting with a succession of increasingly serious suitors in his search for a new stadium (and, more to the point, the dollars to build it—Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has so far refused to pony up taxpayer funds for the billion-dollar project). The latest, Las Vegas, is flashing casino impresario Sheldon Adelson’s vast wealth to lure the Raiders away from their historic home. Oakland’s O.Co Coliseum is falling apart, the Raiders are playing on a one-year lease, and Sin City beckons.
Yet, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported late last month, a Bay Area legend has put together a coalition of businessmen to keep Davis from bolting. NFL Hall of Famer and successful venture capitalist Ronnie Lott has assembled an all-star lineup of investors that includes former Raiders quarterback Rodney Peete, a group who are reportedly seeking an ownership stake in return for raising the $400 million necessary to complete stadium financing. (When contacted by VICE Sports, Lott declined to comment on the talks.)
In a league whose owners are overwhelmingly white, getting Lott, Peete, and their fellow African-American investors involved would be a step forward for the NFL. According to the Chronicle, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who wants the Raiders to remain in Oakland, has been making phone calls in support of the group. That alone, however, doesn’t ensure success.
“There is a deal to be done in Oakland,” Amy Trask told VICE Sports. As the former longtime Raiders CEO and a current CBS Sports analyst, Trask is very familiar with the situation there. She believes the Lott/Peete bid can succeed, as long as all parties are willing to give a little to get what they need.
“There’s an expression in business,” Trask said. “‘Let’s sit across the table and negotiate.’ I don’t believe the best deals are done sitting across the table from one another; they’re done sitting side by side.” She listed four C’s that would be necessary to pull it off—collaboration, coordination, communication, and compromise—but she thinks Lott and Peete are “uniquely suited” to the task.
“I knew Ronnie and Rodney both as players, but I had the pleasure of interacting with Ronnie well after his playing days were over,” Trask said, indicating she’s talked business with Lott outside of their respective football careers. “I can tell you from firsthand experience that I think Ronnie Lott is uniquely suited to get this done—and then you add Rodney Peete in, with his business acumen and background, and I think they bring a little bit of magic to this situation.”
Such magic is sorely needed.
During their original stint in Oakland, the Raiders were one of the most entertaining franchises in football, on and off the field. They played an iconic brand of all-out vertical offense and brutal, physical defense that led to ten conference championship or Super Bowl appearances in a 14-year span, from 1967 to 1980, before decamping to LA in 1982. Since returning to Oakland in 1995, the Raiders have had just three winning seasons.
Jim Zielinski, an East Bay resident for all of his 57 years, has watched it all unfold.
Today Zielinski is a PR professional and prominent member of Save Oakland Sports, a fan group dedicated to keeping Oakland-area pro sports teams in town. (With the Golden State Warriors planning to move to a new arena in San Francisco, S.O.S. has been busy.) He remembers well the Raiders’ original stint in Oakland, and what it was like to be a part of that original fan base.
“Unbelievable passion,” he said. “You had grandmothers sitting next to the Black Panthers, sitting next to the Hell’s Angels, sitting next to the lawyers and accountants.” The surrounding community saw itself as a big part of the Raiders’ iconic (and iconoclastic) brand.
It was “devastating” when the Raiders left, Zielinski said. “I think the East Bay went into a sort of collective shock.” Futile lawsuits and fruitless hope lingered for years. When the Raiders really did return, though, the euphoria quickly replaced the emotional devastation in equal amounts; Zielinski wasted no time dropping $8,000 for two PSLs. He wistfully recalled re-entering the Coliseum for that first game back, the big bowl swirling in silver and black.
“I never thought I’d see it again,” he said.
Now Save Oakland Sports is working overtime—holding rallies, building social media buzz, launching fundraisers—to remind everyone that Oakland fans were legendarily supportive before the Raiders left, and continued to be so through the two largely regrettable decades after they came back, happily committing huge personal and public funds to the team in both eras.
Both Zielinski and Trask believe that the Raiders won’t find a better plot of land on which to build a stadium, let alone a better fan base. However, Zielinski said, Raiders diehards old enough to remember the first move are “incredulous, downtrodden, and disappointed” the organization is so seriously considering pulling up stakes and abandoning this community again.
“It appears to me that the organization has expended tremendous resources pursuing Los Angeles, and then pursuing Las Vegas,” Trask said. “My view is that if the team does wish to stay in Oakland, and does commit the same sort of resources—both human and financial—that there’s a real opportunity to stay in Oakland.”
Mayor Schaaf has repeatedly expressed a strong desire to keep the Raiders in the city—and to do so without spending taxpayer dollars.
“The goals [Schaaf] articulated—retaining the Raiders, and protecting the public interest—are both tremendous goals, and they’re not mutually inconsistent,” said Trask. “There is a deal to be done there that is in the public interest, that maximizes the value of that site to the public, that draws business to Oakland and revenue to Oakland that is currently going to Emeryville, or Union City, or Walnut Creek, or Berkeley or Alameda.”
By Trask’s reckoning, the Coliseum site is the “best served” in the league in terms of transportation and access. Zielinski also notes the Oakland economy is booming, with new residents and new money flooding in from across the bay; he believes that, history and nostalgia notwithstanding, the Oakland site is the best long-term opportunity the Raiders have.
“Ronnie Lott and his group would be heroes if they
were the tipping point that enabled a new stadium to be built,” Zielinski said.
They would also add to the ranks of African-Americans with ownership stakes in the major U.S. sports leagues. It is admittedly a small group—the vast majority of team owners across all sports are white, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. NFL franchise owners, in particular, are incredibly monochromatic for a league where over two-thirds of players, and a large percentage of fans, are black. The NFL had no principal owners of color until Shad Khan, a Pakistani-American, purchased the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012; he was joined by the Buffalo Bills’ Kim Pegula, an Asian-American woman, in 2014. Though Lott and Peete wouldn’t be the first African-Americans to own a portion of a football team, a deal would represent some progress for the league.
“I think it’s fantastic,” John Wooten told VICE Sports. Wooten is chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that advocates for African-American leadership in the NFL. “These two particular guys are top-quality people, as you well know, and outstanding citizens. Ronnie Lott is one of the great ones, on and off the field.” Wooten emphatically vouches for Peete, too; Wooten was the Philadelphia Eagles’ director of player personnel when they signed Peete to be their starting quarterback in 1995
“[Our members] have all felt [a significantly black-owned team] would happen, or should happen,” Wooten said. Should this come to fruition, Wooten would credit Mark Davis for “following in his father’s footsteps” (Al Davis hired Art Shell to be the first black head coach of the modern era) and proactively working to break color barriers.
Trask, who worked directly under Al Davis for many years, sees the late legend’s legacy differently.
“I had the privilege of working for a man, a team owner, who hired without regard for race, ethnicity or gender, and I think that’s the way the world is supposed to work,” she said, noting that Davis evaluated potential business partners, associates, and employees solely on their fitness for the role. Thinking of Lott or Peete in terms of labels or ethnic identity is “antithetical” to the way she views, and she says Davis viewed, the world. Instead, it’s just a smart business decision.
“Only good things come from being inclusive,” Trask said. “A business that is not inclusive, in my view, deserves to fail. Why you would exclude people based on labels or characteristics that have no bearing on their abilities, or capabilities … you’re ruling out vast portions of humanity.”
Lott and Peete, in her estimation, are not only capable but “stupendous” businessmen who possess both the boardroom credibility and whiteboard creativity needed to forge a resolution.
“Whether these men had ever put on a jersey or not, they’re qualified to do a deal,” she said. “Now does it make it better for the National Football League that they played the game? Absolutely, positively yes.”
Nothing about this deal is easy. It’s far from guaranteed. Three-quarters of the owners have to approve any stadium deal, as Trask pointed out, and they don’t just let anyone who can cut a big check join their club. There is also the matter of the Raiders’ co-occupants in the Coliseum, the Oakland A’s baseball team. But Lott, Peete, and Schaaf are motivated to get a compromise done, and Mark Davis is motivated to get a new stadium. This may be the last, best opportunity for all parties involved to get everything they need in Oakland—even if they don’t get everything they want.
If they can make it work, Goodell will have solved two problems that have bedeviled the league for decades in quick succession: what to do with Los Angeles and what to do with the Raiders. And with Lott and Peete in the room where it happens, so to speak, the NFL can start bridging the gap between the elderly white billionaires who run the game and the young black men who play it.