Oakland Raiders: The Curious Case of Art Powell; Stickum and Cheating

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst IAugust 30, 2010

Ever since the New England Patriots were outed in 2007 for stealing signals, I have had to ask a simple question:

What is cheating?

Don't worry Pat fans (aka, Patsies), I'm not here to rip the Patriots again.

I would however like to discuss the broader issue of cheating in professional sports, and cite as an example the use of stickum by the Oakland Raiders.

Amongst other famous plays (or infamous, depending on how you look at it), stickum serves as an indelible image of the Raiders attitude of doing anything to win.

If you ask me, the primary reason why people have labeled the Raiders as cheaters is because of stickum, even though the substance was not banned at the time it was used by the Raiders. 

In every article I have read about the Raiders and the question of cheating, nothing other than stickum (pads, hits, etc) has amounted to anything unique to the Raiders.


Cheating is in the Eye of the Beholder (and Those who Make the Rules)

As economist John Maynard Keynes once said, "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally." 

Because if you succeed unconventionally, people will think that you were just lucky, or perhaps a, "cheater." 

Al Davis and the Raiders intentionally instilled paranoia in their opponents, which has in turn created an irrational perception of the Raiders that has spurned invalid accusations of cheating.

Often because, Davis and the Raiders would invert the narratives by the sheer act of winning.

Throughout much of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the modus operandi of Raiders owner Al Davis was to get under the skin of his opponents in order to disrupt their confidence in their schemes and plans.

As former coach Herm Edwards once said of the Raiders, "When they came to town, they acted like they wanted to burn the whole village down."

So great was the paranoid inculcated by Davis and the Raiders than an opponent once had the ball checked for helium after a punt by Raiders great Ray Guy, because the punt had an uncannily long hangtime.

Bill Currie of KDKA in Pittsburgh once claimed that, "the public perception of Mr. Al Davis paints the man as avaricious creep, having no ethics, and also who is a heretic, who has possibly with Satanic help, publicly expressed doubt as to the divine origin of all the words uttered by Mr. Pete Rozelle."

Here's the ironic truth.

How is it cheating if it does not break the rules, and you make it absolutely clear as to what you're doing? 

Yet, the opponents would follow their same old programming and would get burned for it, until of course, the league changed the rule to protect those players from their own inhibitions.

At the same time, rules historically have been made to systematically cheat others.  One could say that the Jim Crow laws of the South cheated black people from opportunity, self-esteem, justice, and legacies, amongst other things.

To use a contemporary example from pop culture to illustrate this point, the show Psych on the USA Network (I'm aware of the fact that the character Shawn Spencer often wears Chargers gear) has a theme song that goes as follows :

In between the lines / There's a lot of obscurity / I'm not inclined to resign to maturity / If it's all right, then you're all wrong / why bounce around to the same downed song? / You'd rather run when you can't crawl

I know, you know that / I'm not telling the truth / I know you know they / just don't have any proof / embrace the deception, learn how to bend / your worst inhibitions / they will psych you out in the end

I know, you know; I know, you know (x3).


Stick it to the Man

Every sport has had athletes use something that gave them an advantage whether it was a football player, or Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Gaylord Perry and his use of Vaseline to alter the ball.

After the 1980 NFL season, the league officially banned stickum with what is now known as the Lester Hayes rule, in what would be another rule made to negate the increasing dominance of cornerbacks.

In 1980, Hayes would earn the honors of NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as the Raiders went on to upset all predictions and narratives by defeating the favored San Diego Chargers of Don Coryell and Dan Fouts in the conference title game and defeating the favored Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl that year.

I know, you know; I know, you know.

A few years earlier, the league also enacted the Mel Blount rule, now known as, "illegal use of the hands."

The league presumably made the rule in the interest of creating a level playing field, because Blount dominated at cornerback for the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Such changes in the rules had been incremented throughout the years, with the ban of clotheslining the receiver as another notable change.

Though Hayes would often draw minor penalties in order to intimidate receivers, his use of stickum was not illegal. 

In fact, fellow Raiders such as running back Mark van Eeghen and receiver Fred Biletnikoff had used the substance before him.  In fact, Biletnikoff introduced the substance to Hayes when Hayes was a rookie.

It seems quite simple to me that stickum did not constitute cheating, because the use of it was technically legal, and that the substance was by no means deceptive, especially in the case of Hayes because he was blatantly covered in it, but also because stickum had been used for years prior.

Biletnikoff's indelible legacy on football has been emblazoned in the Pro Football of Fame, but also with the Biletnikoff Award for the best college receiver.


It's all about intimidation

Intimidation of some form is all part of the winning attitude, whether you are a football player or a car racer like Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt.  Some football teams hit harder; other teams pass more or run up the score.

I have often voiced by disdain for the philosophy of running up the score, because the same defenders of it will hypocritically gripe about vicious hits and the safety of players. 

Yet, both philosophies are about intimidation.  One example being that of the San Diego offense under coach Don Coryell and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts. 

I don't care for it (running up scores) because it results in one-sided games that are dreadful to watch.  I'd rather watch the grass grow. 

More importantly, if an offense is unwilling to show restraint, then why should a defender show restraint when he has the chance to hit the passer, runner, or receiver?

I know, you know; I know you know.


Jacked Up

The Raiders were certainly known for their vicious hits.

Articles will often cite such hits by the Raiders as evidence that suggests that they were uniquely dirty, to which I call nonsense and hypocrisy. 

Steelers fans will often cite as dirty, a hit made by Raiders safety George Atkinson against Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann.

Another favorite amongst Raider Haters is the hit laid out by safety Jack Tatum against Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley, because the hit paralyzed Stingley.

Tatum moreover is often cited as the reason why the NFL has made changes to prevent vicious hits and tackling.

Tatum once said notoriously, "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault," yet Tatum has also said, "I always wanted to hit someone hard, and if they got hurt, that was part of the game. But you always wanted them to be OK."

The ridiculous double-standard is clear, because such a legacy has often been used to exclude Tatum from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I know, you know; I know, you know.

Yet, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert of the Steelers is officially, "noted for vicious tackling" in the website biography for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or as Lambert said in his words:

"I am very aggressive and very physical. On the field I guess I am just plain mean," or, "I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can't take it, you shouldn't play," and, "Yes, I get satisfaction out of hitting a guy and seeing him lie there for a while."

As Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway once described Lambert after Lambert knocked Elway out of his first game, "He had no teeth, and he was slobbering all over himself. I'm thinking, 'You can have your money back, just get me out of here. Let me go be an accountant." I can't tell you how badly I wanted out of there."

Elway made the factors of fear clear, as being the visceral image of Lambert as toothless and slobbering.

I will go out on a limb and surmise that the image of Tatum as a black man with an Afro who played in Oakland evoked an image of angry black men akin to the Black Panthers (founded in Oakland).

Thus, I submit to you crybaby Steelers fans and Raider Haters alike: STFU.

It's that simple.


The Curious Case of Art Powell

Speaking of legacies...

I will be the first to tell you that I'm not a fan of the Keynesian economics used by the Obama administration.  Even so, it seems that these days our country has been going backwards in race relations.

One of the stories about the Raiders that has long stuck in my mind.  That is the story of wide receiver Art Powell.

He led the Raiders and league in receiving yards and touchdowns during the first winning season (1963), which was also his first year with the team after being sold by the New York Titans (now the Jets).  It was also the first year coached by Al Davis. 

Before then, Powell had paired with Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard to form the first tandem of receivers to each surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

To my knowledge, Powell has never been accused of cheating.  He was however known for his work ethic and leadership.  Yet, I would submit to you that the legacy of Powell has been cheated.

Lore has it that Powell's interracial marriage is what inspired Davis' trail-blazing philosophies towards minority hiring of players and other employees, and even the Raiders colors of Silver and Black.

Powell had a polarizing image his marriage but also after he and teammates Clem Daniels, Bo Roberson, and Fred Williamson refused to participate in a preseason game against the New York Jets, because of segregated seating at Mobile's Ladd Stadium.

I would submit to you that the accusations of "cheating" and rule-breaking originated with the fact that Davis mainstreamed an athlete that broke the rules by marrying a white woman.  And that just transformed throughout the decades, with such hypocritical excuses as stickum

There is a connection between Al Davis and former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall; the owner that refused to integrate the Redskins until an ultimatum by the US Department of the Interior to integrate or else lose its stadium license.

Marshall is believed to be responsible for segregation in the NFL, and I do surmise that he went to his death trying to impede the process of integration, and would even retaliate against those responsible for integration.

It is believed that Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and George Halas of the Chicago Bears begrudgingly fell in line with Marshall, even though they disagreed with his bigotry.

To quote Mr. Pete Rozelle:

Mr. Marshall was an outspoken foe of the status quo when most were content with it. His fertile imagination and vision brought vital improvements to the structure and presentation of the game. Pro football today does in many ways reflect his personality. It has his imagination, style, zest, dedication, openness, brashness, strength and courage. We all are beneficiaries of what his dynamic personality helped shape over more than three decades.

So there you have it. 

Rozelle lauded the vision of a bigot, while Currie of Pittsburgh media referred to Al Davis as "possibly Satanic" for "publicly expressed doubt as to the divine origin of all the words uttered by Mr. Pete Rozelle."

I can imagine that Marshall believed that people like Al Davis had no place in pro football, when he would tolerate a "lawbreaker" like Powell.

The words of Pete Rozelle would suggest that Marshall's legacy lived on posthumously.  But don't tell that to Time Magazine that named Rozelle as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

The Hall of Fame has in effect dubbed Fred Biletnikoff as the constant narrative between the 1960s and 1970s for the Raiders.  Yet, the only truth that seems to be told by that narrative is a biased one.

Biletnikoff led the Raiders in receiving yards only three times in 14 seasons.  Teammates often surpassed Biletnikoff in yards and receiving touchdowns, such as receivers Powell, Warren Wells, and Cliff Branch.

Even in his day, Biletnikoff was slow and undersized yet famous for his, "sure-handed catches" that he often made with one hand, or his performance in Super Bowl XI for which he earned the honor of Super Bowl MVP.

I don't know why Powell has been excluded from the Hall of Fame.

Career wise, Powell surpasses Biletnikoff in receiving touchdowns with 81 against Biletnikoff's total of 76, while Powell's 8,046 receiving yards and 479 receptions are comparable to Biletnikoff's totals of 8,974 receiving yards and 589 receptions. 

It should be noted however that Biletnikoff played in 190 games with 131 starts, while Powell played in 117 games and no starts.

Powell's percentage of receptions for touchdowns at 16.8% still ranks as one of the highest in the history of pro football.

I know, you know; I know, you know.