Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden watches the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Photo by Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

One of the more interesting statements around Jon Gruden’s departure on Monday night as head coach of the now Las Vegas Raiders, was made by the team owner, Mark Davis, who is the son of the Raiders’ founder, the late Al Davis. 

On Friday, per an ESPN report, Mark Davis said that the content of Gruden’s emails — reportedly using racist, misogynistic and homophobic language — was “disturbing” and “not what the Raiders stand for.” So, on the first week of a Gruden-free Raiders organization, what DO the Raiders stand for?

One of the interesting things to me about the Raiders comes from my experience living around the world. The NFL has a huge following in countries such as England, Germany, and other places where I’ve lived. Raider silver and black is not only extremely popular but it’s more often than not used as symbolic streetwear, rather than simply NFL fan gear, around the world.

When you break this down, this means that the Raiders’ silver and black stands for something, which is why everyone from hipsters to people who either are or want to hold themselves out as being gang members wear their colors around the world.

But the notion that this franchise can withstand anything — that there is a global Raiders brand of actual loyal fans — is torn apart in a compelling 2019 article in the East Bay Express. The myth of the Raiders’ global brand is just that — a myth. When we dive into the actual fan numbers and the various metrics that we look at for fan support away from “home” — defined as Oakland — they are straight-up mediocre. 

The author suggests that this idea of positioning that Raiders as another kind of “America’s team” — even if reflective of a different America than that of the NFL’s existing America’s Team, the Cowboys — was used to weaponize the Raiders’ move to Los Angeles and now Las Vegas:

“I bring this up because this formerly innocuous delusion shared by NFL execs and non-Bay Area fans is not so harmless anymore, as it’s been used to justify the team’s impending and surely regrettable relocation. NFL owners have said the Raiders could build a fan base in Las Vegas, which would be visited and augmented by fans in Los Angeles and other communities outside of Nevada.

Simply put, this type of thinking is foolish — even nonsensical — especially when used to defend Mark Davis’ plan to backstab East Bay fans for a second time.”

But maybe Raiders gotta Raid?

The word raider actually comes from middle English when Vikings invaded. Viking raiders were murderers and pillagers. They’re name literally connotates murder and stealing — not actually “winning,” or “toughness.” The actual Viking raiders traveled thousands of miles to the east and south: across the Baltic, onto the rivers of modern-day Russia and across the Black Sea to menace Constantinople in 941.

“Nobody imagines they were there to capture the city,” says Cambridge University historian Simon Franklin in Smithsonian. “It was more terroristic — all about instilling fear and extracting concessions for trade.”

Raiders players have always been or nurtured the persona of outlaws more so than simply football field warriors. The names of Alzado, Sistrunk, Stabler, Tatum, and many more evoke images of the darkside, the stadium and team you might never come out of or recover from facing. These were, at an absolute minimum, the bad boys of the NFL.

In a piece from this summer announcing that Mark Davis was building a $14 million mansion in the desert just outside of Las Vegas, CBS Sports (unironically, one of the great historical conduits of the messaging and meaning of the Raiders silver and black) perfectly encapsulated what the team stands for:

Whether by way of Oakland, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, the legacy and mystique of the Raiders has long centered around their standing as the designated “villain” of the National Football League. It’s what influenced nicknames such as “The Black Hole” at the old Oakland Coliseum and the new “Death Star” of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

As Michael Epstein, a lawyer and close NFL follower points out:

“Although the Raiders of the 70s and 80s were considered outlaws and anti-establishment as players and as an organization, the Gruden emails are totally different as they are derogatory and/or discriminatory to multiple groups. Such comments and the tone of the comments cannot be accepted when we are collectively trying to make a more inclusive society and a more inclusive National Football League.

One remarkably interesting legal piece to consider here is the $60 million remaining on Gruden’s 10 year/$100 million contract. He was not dismissed from the Raiders “for cause,” nor was he terminated. Normally, when a contractual employee resigns, they sacrifice remaining payments owed on their contract — they have simply chosen no longer to perform according to their contractual obligation, so they don’t get paid. 

But in such a politically-charged departure, many observers of the intersection of sports and law would be shocked if Gruden didn’t walk away with a significant payout that was pre-arranged as part of his very swift and relatively un-messy resignation. 

Is the narrative here that he voluntarily walked away from $60 million? Football insiders who are reporting on the Gruden departure and not digging to find out more about the payout are complicit with those in power who want all of this to go away quickly without examining some of the deeper questions involved. 

Ray Dennis, a strategic brand advisor who is a lifelong Raiders fan and has advised professional sports franchises, boils down the current disconnect to something foundational about the Raiders as a franchise — a rich history that the Gruden saga detracts from:

“Al Davis has a legacy of giving opportunities to Black players during the civil rights era so having leadership that is racially insensitive doesn’t align with that legacy.”

And that may have been the final straw for the Davis family. Because, as the East Bay piece pointed out:

“One of Al Davis’ favorite slogans was ‘The Will to Win.’ But when it comes to the Raiders on TV, not enough people nationwide have the will to watch.”

If the Raiders risk deviating too far from their history, from the self-created image of “what the Raiders stand for,” the team will bleed a lot more cash than the amount left in Gruden’s contract and could shake the very foundation of what it is to be part of the Raiders family.

Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and the editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in CBS NewsUSA TodayESPN,  TechCrunchThe HillBuzzFeed, FortuneVenture BeatThe IndependentYahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, and many other leading publications. 

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