Al Davis’ most important accomplishment in pro football: Fighting for equality

Al Davis has been rightly praised, since his death on Saturday, for an uncompromising vision in promoting the downfield passing attack that defined not just his old AFL Raiders franchise, but the modern NFL. He also helped usher in the age of free agency, with a series of gutsy thefts of NFL talent before the merger; and then the ascent of the owner/travel agent with a pair of city swaps between Los Angeles and Oakland.

Al Davis was, in the end, the personification of pro-sports rebel — the visceral godfather of later figures like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban.

And that included, though it’s unfortunately been less of a focus in the weekend tributes, Davis’ forward thinking in bringing blacks into full partnership in the game — from shepherding the careers of former HBCU standouts like Willie Brown (pictured above, at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction) and Ernie Ladd, to standing united with black players through a series of Civil Rights issues to hiring the first modern-day African-American coach. (Davis also brought in the first Latino coach, and the first female CEO.)

A single event, involving the 1965 American Football League All-Star Game, illustrates that long-held commitment to fairness. It’s an event about which Davis and Ladd (an AFL Hall of Fame lineman for the San Diego Chargers who had originally been scouted by Davis) spoke with me extensively before their respective passings.

News reports said fewer than 16,000 fans were on hand for the exhibition, to be held in New Orleans. What they witnessed, however, was another triumph in the ongoing battle for racial justice — and, Ladd always said, a key element in pro football history — as 21 black players participated in a protest of race-related threats and insults across the Crescent City.

Louisiana, like most Deep South states, was at that time struggling mightily with attempts by the Congress to open the doors of education, housing and voting to African-Americans. The state legislature had gone so far, in 1955, as prohibit interracial sporting events in Louisiana — and that law stood for a startling four years. Late in the 1960s, if blacks wanted to eat with whites in some New Orleans restaurants, they had to sit in a back room.

Into this atmosphere of intimidation and race-based fear walked Ladd. And then the Grambling product walked out.

Davis, only months away from taking over in April 1966 as commissioner of the American Football League, threw his complete support behind the cause: “We moved the game to Houston,” he told me, “because they wouldn’t let our black players stay at the team hotel or go to the restaurants in New Orleans.”

Just the year before this All-Star protest, the Supreme Court had overturned another state law that mandated segregated seating at all public events in Louisiana. Some New Orleans leaders and organizers with the Sugar Bowl hoped to end segregation in sports by showing that integrated teams could help boost tourism. But parts of the city had not yet caught up with the notion of equal rights for blacks.

Ladd’s teammate, Chargers defensive end Earl Faison, recalled enduring biting slurs: “I was checking in to the hotel and heard voices in the background asking, ‘Is that Ernie Ladd?'” he said in an NFL Films documentary. “And another guy said, ‘No, Ernie Ladd is a bigger n—– than that.”

They were refused taxi service and entry into restaurants. Ladd and Faison even said they were ordered to leave a nightclub at gunpoint by a bouncer.

Some of the players met at 2 a.m., and decided to vote the next morning. That ended 13-8 in favor of walking out.

“Someone had to take a stand and stop players from being treated as second-class citizens,” said Ladd, who passed in 2006 after a long bout with cancer. “We didn’t do it for publicity. We did it because of what was right and what was wrong.”

Davis told me he then made an impassioned call to hotel management, which resulted in their AFL traveling party becoming the first racially mixed group allowed to stay at the Shamrock Hilton in Houston.

“I got a promise from the Hiltons that they would make every attempt to accommodate us, which they did very shortly,” Davis said.

The game went on, but in a broader sense the game was utterly changed.

This event was at the genesis of the players-rights movement in sports, Ladd told me. More players, recognizing their rights would be protected, began filtering into the AFL afterward — and Ladd insisted that hastened the eventual merger with the establishment National Football League.

“Whatever the owners told them, they did,” Ladd once said. “The AFL gave birth to men who would stand up and fight. There were no yellow-bellied cowards in the AFL.”

The Ladd-led boycott had been part of a revolution, according to writer David Barron of The Houston Chronicle, “akin to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enter the draft or Harry Edwards’ efforts to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics by black American athletes.”

As for Ladd, Davis told me: “He was a great player, but he was also a great person. He was a little bit ahead of his time.”

So was Davis.

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