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Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire

OH, THE PIRATE'S LIFE FOR ME! Two fearless authors embrace Raider Nation in `Better to Reign in Hell' -- oh, the humanity!
Review by Kate Callen published in the San Diego Union-Tribune 10/28/05

When the Oakland Raiders won a berth in the 2003 Super Bowl, host city San Diego dispensed with its trademark sunniness and pitched a fit.

Downtown businesses hired security consultants. Condo owners pulled rental listings. Waiters groused. Only one San Diego firm rolled out the welcome mat: In a TV ad showing a horde of thugs dressed in silver and black, King Stahlman Bail Bonds proclaimed, "The Raider fans are here. Not everyone is thrilled about that. We are."

Cultural scholar Jim Miller, a self-described "lifelong Raiders fan living in San Diego," maxed out his credit card to buy a scalped Super Bowl ticket, and thereby sank $2,000 into a nightmare. Stung by Oakland's 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay, Miller and Kelly Mayhew, his wife and collaborator, spent the next football season immersed in the cult known (and officially trademarked) as "Raider Nation." At tailgate parties and sports bars, in chat rooms and even in the "Black Hole" section of the Oakland Coliseum, the couple conducted research by hanging out with the world's most devoted and most maligned sports fans.

"Better to Reign in Hell" is their sprightly analysis of life in this global renegade sect. While the core fan base represents "two of the West Coast's most blighted communities, Oakland's flatlands and Southeast Los Angeles," Raider Nation encircles the planet. The team lists booster clubs in more countries than any other pro sports team and sells more merchandise than any other NFL franchise. Australian Paul O'Shanassy gets up at 4 a.m. to watch televised games. Briton Steve Waite's collection of Raider memorabilia fills two rooms of his house.

Raider Nation also is remarkable for its ethnic diversity. Says fan Mike Rosacker, "The main thing I love about the Coliseum is the cultural fusion -- Hispanics, African-Americans, white boys like me, and all other races join forces."

But more than anything else, these denizens are united by the bonds of outrage and defiance. "If you know your boss isn't any better than you are, you're a Raiders fan," the authors write. "If you flip off the guy who cuts you off on the freeway, you're a Raiders fan. ... If you watch gangster films and root for the mob, you're a Raiders fan."

In their previous book, "Under the Perfect Sun," which they co- wrote with MacArthur fellow Mike Davis, Miller and Mayhew shredded San Diego's image as a carefree paradise. That theme plays again in the new book's Super Bowl scenes. On game day, fans like Miller who rode the trolley to Qualcomm Stadium stood for hours in scorching heat to pass through a tortuous security checkpoint. At a quieter stadium entrance, fans arriving by limo breezed through the gates. Meanwhile, "amidst the party, ships loaded with sailors and troops cruised out of the harbor toward the Persian Gulf." These juxtapositions received no media coverage because, Miller and Mayhew write, "such a negative observation might have gotten in the way of the booster pabulum official San Diego spits up every time someone pays attention to it."

The scholarship of Miller and Mayhew, both of whom are professors at San Diego City College, is driven by their politics and their life experience. This can narrow their field of reference: In describing the protracted melodrama of Al Davis, for example, they neglect to mention that he came to Oakland in 1963 from San Diego, where he was a Chargers assistant coach. But their writing is passionate and compelling, their reporting is pickax sharp, and their affection for the people of Raider Nation lights up the book. If you really enjoy hating Raider fans, this sojourn into their hearts and souls will spoil your fun.

Drawing on history and the work of other cultural scholars, Miller and Mayhew contend that modern Raider mania is stoked by the widespread socioeconomic decline that has plagued Oakland, where the poverty rate hovers around 25 percent. As unemployment digs in and public schools deteriorate, as the rich get richer and the needy give up, membership in Raider Nation provides "an emotional life preserver" in an otherwise bleak existence. "Put simply," they write, "a fan might think, my city might be blown up by terrorists, my job may be eliminated ... my kids' future might be in jeopardy, but at least there's the Raiders."

In exchange for this intermittent buoyancy, most Raider fans overlook the shenanigans of owner Davis, who, in the rapacious world of sports franchises, set the bar for greed and litigiousness. And they shrug when ticket costs make it impossible for them to attend Coliseum games. Many are content to celebrate Raiderdom in neighborhood taverns, like the venerable Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro, or in the Coliseum parking lot, where RVs line up days before a game for prime parking spaces. As one fan notes, "Tailgate is the reason for the season."

The best parts of "Better to Reign in Hell" take us to the pre- game tailgate pageantry of suckling pig roasts and costumed "celebrity fans" like Gorilla Rilla, Voodoo Man and Raider-Gloria, whose getup includes silver hiking boots, sunglasses with Raider shields on the lenses and a silver pom-pom on her head. Citing social critics like Michael Oriard and Susan Faludi, Miller and Mayhew point out that professional football has turned spectators into actors vying for public attention. If athletic skills won't ever get you on TV, maybe outlandish outfits and crazy antics will.

Then there is alcohol, the mother's milk of sports hooliganism. Even as they insist that "for the most part, Raider fans are pretty good people," Miller and Mayhew do not sidestep the violence and substance abuse that is synonymous with Raider Nation: chugging down bottles of tequila and vodka, random beatings, urinating on opposing fans, 40 arrests on average during Coliseum games. One Raider drunk overturned a portable toilet while a woman was using it. Another approached the pregnant Mayhew in a corridor and told her, "If I don't watch myself, I'll rape you." A third avoided the hassle of restrooms by using his "stadium pal," a catheter connected by tubing to a urinal bag on his leg.

The authors take all this philosophically: "That, of course, is the problem with any event where people get a sense that the usual prohibitions may be ignored -- one person's happy anarchy is another person's fascist free-for-all." As for the gangs who rioted in East Oakland after the 2003 Super Bowl loss, Miller and Mayhew write, "These `undesirables' will continue to crash the party in their unlicensed, bootleg gear. ... In a culture where violence is as American as apple pie ... kids shunted to the margins would prefer to be feared rather than ignored."

But the sagest philosophers in "Better to Reign" are fans interviewed for the book who were, contrary to stereotype, thoughtful and oddly discerning. Comparing party habits at Raider games and Grateful Dead concerts, Scott remarks, "I would say it's a positive thing that there is weed going on at Raiders games overall. It might actually take the edge off." And Bob explains his decision to switch sports with, "I actually like watching basketball more now because drunks can't watch it. Football is different -- you can watch it when you're drunk."

Raider fans have a special empathy for the downtrodden, and this colors their attachment to players from past eras. Jerseys emblazoned with deified names like Ken "the Snake" Stabler, Daryle Lamonica, Lester "the Molester" Hayes and Lyle Alzado remain popular. But infamous players also live on in Raider memories, like All-Pro center Barret Robbins, who didn't show up for the 2003 Super Bowl, and kicker Cole Ford, arrested last year for blasting a shotgun at the Las Vegas mansion of Siegfried and Roy.

In good times and bad -- and the past few losing seasons have been a nadir for the team -- Raider players return their fans' adoration. Asked about the team's inability to sell out the 63,000- seat Coliseum, offensive tackle Mo Collins told the Oakland Tribune, "I'll take our 20 to 30,000 against anybody's 80 to 100,000 any day. Our fans are unique. They follow us around. They go to hostile environments." Tim Brown added, "Whoever is there, we know we are going to get their best."

Like the Mafia, Raider Nation is a romanticized conundrum, generous and loyal to those on the inside, hostile to outsiders, vicious to transgressors. It is a place where a Raider decal on your windshield protects your car better than an alarm in the worst parts of Oakland. It has been embraced by George Carlin and lionized by the late Hunter Thompson, to whom "Better to Reign" is partly dedicated.

Even its despot-for-life, Al Davis, is redeemed by his record of hiring the NFL's first black head coach (Art Shell) and first female chief executive (Amy Trask). Yes, it's true that Davis will sue anything with a pulse, including the NFL and the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland. But the authors point out -- and San Diegans well know -- that extorting the hometown is a favorite pastime of NFL franchises; as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Ray Ratto once remarked, "Aren't any of these people even slightly worried that there might be a hell?" And it's hard to condemn an owner so beloved by his players that he has been asked by a record eight Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees to present them at the enshrinement ceremony.

As for the fans the rest of football loves to loathe, Miller and Mayhew argue convincingly that Raider Nation is all about "an embattled desire for some kind of community in an age when community is in decline." If that desire spills into misconduct now and then, the authors defer to Samuel Johnson, who observed that "he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

Excerpt from Better to Reign in Hell

Sports fans strain against the notion that they are simply rooting for the interests of one corporation against another, even as team owners brazenly move, raid public funds, and do everything they can to shatter the illusion that community interests have anything to do with their bottom lines. ... What sports owners want are "markets" full of "corporate supporters" whose interests are, in turn, to sell products to other "markets" of affluent consumers. It hardly matters where these "markets" are as the real money is generated by television contracts making the regular fans in the stand little more than props whose input pales in comparison to the luxury suite set.

* * * * *

The virtual Raider Nation is probably not different from the rest of cyberspace in that a kind of cyberapartheid exists, with more white and middle-class fans online than working-class or African- American or Latino fans. Hence, it's likely that the foul-mouthed virtual thug assaulting your masculinity is not a genuine street tough from East Oakland but rather an overweight, middle-aged Willie Loman computer geek from Red Neck, Arizona. ...

The right and left wings of Raider Nation can unite in their hatred of the 49ers and their fans. The rightwing Raiders fans can hate them because they drink French wine, drive BMWs, and vote for tax-raising liberals, and the leftwing Raiders fans can hate them because they are the rich yuppie scum who are busting the unions and gentrifying every inch of the Bay Area. ...

As opposed to the stereotype of all football fans as bigoted Neanderthals, the range of opinion in the virtual Raider Nation is far more diverse. Rightwing macho mingles with angry progressivism. In sum, the politics of Raider Nation are hard to gauge, but a heavy streak of anarchic libertarianism seems to unite [online] posters from the left and the right. Whatever you do, just leave Raider Nation alone. This sentiment, and the love of Raiderdom, manages to hold everybody together. Football may not be outside history, but nobody checks your party affiliation at the tailgate. In Raider Nation, July 4 is Al Davis's birthday. Really.