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Monday, October 17, 2011

The Significance of Al Davis

By 1970, the ABC television network had come to dominate its rivals NBC and CBS in sports coverage. ABC had many announcers, but the most dissimilar two were Chris Schenkel and Howard Cosell. Schenkel was, by all accounts, a nice guy who accentuated the positive and confined his commentary to the field of play. Cosell, by all accounts, could be a difficult personality. He viewed every aspect of sports on or off the field as fair game for reporting and criticism. Today we see that Cosell’s approach to sports journalism has largely displaced Schenkel’s traditional approach.

There was a revolution on the field as well. Athletes have never been a squeaky-clean bunch, at least in the contact sports. There have always been dirty players, and there has always been reprehensible behavior off the field. Nevertheless, until the late 1960s there was a carefully constructed image of sports – both college and pro – as squeaky clean.  Owners and coaches, in particularly, were supposed to project this image consistently. Problems of athletes were covered up by their teams and, prior to Cosell, by a complicit press too.

But along came Al Davis, a former coach and commissioner of the short-lived American Football League who died earlier this month. Initially as general manager and later as owner of the Oakland Raiders, Davis pushed an approach to football that was simple and utterly different: “Just win, baby”. In other words, you (the athlete) can openly do almost anything you want – and I (the owner) won’t care, as long as you win. And the Raiders did indeed win. The aura of squeaky cleanliness was blown forever, and that’s how sports are today.

Davis and Cosell, who died in 1995, are two sides of the same coin.

Of course, “Just win, baby” is akin to “the end justifies the means”.. a troublesome philosophy, as I’ve blogged before.