Yesterday I shared a story about the Johnny Bright incident, a dark spot on the history of football in the United States. Today, in contrast, I want to write about an incredibly bright spot in the history of the sport.
It is true that many may know the name Al Davis in relation to his roles with the Raiders. What may be lesser known is how he changed the landscape of professional football while in those roles. For someone who is remembered for being stuck decades behind in fashion and football, he was an innovator in all matters involving people.
The contributions made by Davis could be easily made into a laundry list of "firsts and seconds". As the owner and GM of the Raiders Davis hired Amy Trask the league's first ever female front office executive. He also hired Art Shell, only the 2nd Black head coach in the NFL. He hired the league's 2nd Latinx head coach, Tom Flores. He also drafted the first Black quarterback to ever go in the first round, Eldridge Dickey in 1968.
His decisions fueled by morality (and discrimination that he faced himself as a Jewish person) went beyond the significance of the hires that he made. While the country grappled with the Civil Rights Movement and some coaches shied away from making too many waves, Al Davis did not.
In 1963 he pulled his team out of a preseason game in Mobile, Alabama because of the state's laws protecting segregation. He instead had the game moved to Oakland where his players would not have to face racial tensions and segregation. The stands at the venue in Mobile were segregated and Black people could not use the restrooms. Davis had no tolerance for the intolerance and made the change despite losing money from the tickets in Mobile.
Two years later in 1965 Davis was involved in a similar protest. Davis had the AFL's all star game moved from New Orleans to Houston after the team faced flagrant discrimination. Cab drivers outside of the New Orleans airport refused to drive the Black players to their hotel, telling that they had to find "a colored cab". Once they finally made it to the hotel, they continued to face discrimination even being told by hotel employees that they were the first Black people ever to step foot inside. Davis at the encouragement of his Black players, packed up and headed home. By the time that most of the team had arrived back home, Davis had already gotten the game moved. He implemented a policy that the Raiders would not play games in cities where Black players would have to stay in different hotels due to segregation.
As AFL Commissioner, Davis encouraged scouting and drafting of players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, something that was not common place.
Decades later in a press conference Davis said, “In ’65, we had cultural revolution in this country. We had the Watts riots, we had Detroit, we had Martin Luther King in ’68 getting killed. It’s tough to go back in retrospect and remember, but there was a little turmoil in every organization, in every league, over the diversity issue and what was going to happen about it in the country.”
Some list him as one of the most influential sports figures of the Civil Rights Movement, but one thing is for certain there is no doubt the incredible impact that Al Davis had on professional football and on this country. It is still visible today.
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