They have names like Gorilla Rilla, Violator and Dr. Death. They sit in a section called the Black Hole, dress in pirate gear and other garb that makes them look like Mad Max characters. They put in color contacts to make their eyes look like dark holes into other worlds, wave fake plastic swords around, wear all black and dare any opposing player or fan to come near them. The stereotypical Raiders fans are terrifying, loud and the most misunderstood in the NFL.
They’re also the most disrespected.
Sure, teams pick up and leave to go to other cities, and sometimes they even come back (like the Cleveland Browns did); but how many leave once, come back and then leave again? And how many fan bases will put up with it?
It’s now official that the Raiders are getting set to leave Oakland after the 2018 season to go play in a new $2 billion stadium in the Las Vegas desert. Apparently, the move has been a long time coming; current owner Mark Davis registered the website for the team-city combination back in 1998. Despite the murmurs, fans still showed up to every game. They held out hope that the young Raiders team who put up a strong showing this past season until injuries sealed their fate would continue to grow, and continue to do it in Oakland.
Now those fans are going to have to support their team even though they know the Raiders are moving over 500 miles away. And the news of the move has once again shone a spotlight on their itinerant fan base, which has followed the team since its inception in Oakland in 1960 as part of the old American Football League, the 1982 move down to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland in 1995. They now will be faced with the choice of following them yet again, this time across state lines to the City of Sin, or trying to figure out another plan. Where do you go and who do you root for when your team has let you down by showing how little it cares about your hometown so many times?
Partly, the terrifying image of the Raiders and their fans has made it difficult for people to feel sympathy. Besides the ticket-buyers who wear face paint and spiked shoulder pads, you had guys like John “The Tooz” Matuszak was driving in his Lincoln when he pulled out a gun and shot a stop sign near the Raiders practice facility. Jack Tatum paralyzed Darryl Stingley on a hit that would get him banned from the game today. Even their legends have names like gunslingers and outlaws. Ken “The Snake” Stabler, anyone? The Raiders, the team and the fans, are shrouded in mystique. And mystique, in football, no matter how poetic Steve Sabol may have made it seem when he penned “The Autumn Wind” about the franchise for NFL Films in 1974, doesn’t exactly endear you in the eyes of other fans.
“Blood was flying,” Lester Hayes told Sports on Earth of the team’s old-school playing style. “Broken teeth. You had busted lips. People had molars missing. You got two black eyes, and you looked like you were part raccoon. It was beautiful in the 20th century, and it was all legal. I mean, it was legal for you to make a grown man bleed.”
But, of course, lots of teams are violent, and fans getting out of control is a problem in stadiums from Buffalo to Seattle. Football, no matter how much the league wants to protect players, will always be a tough sport. Bones will continue to break, blood will spill, and heads will still smash up against each other in a way that can’t be healthy. And the fans, like they always do, will find ways to react to it. Violence isn’t something exclusive to the Raiders and their fans; yet no team and their supporters carries the kind of reputation that follows them around like a bad stench like the Raiders, save for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Warranted or not, Levi Damien, editor-in-chief of Raiders blog Silver & Black Pride, says that he thinks the fans’ rougher image is partly up to their move down to Los Angeles, then gangs picked up the team logo as an intimidation booster.
“It’s one of those chicken or the egg things,” he says. “NWA wore the Raiders colors, which were also the Kings colors at the time, that was kind of their thing. Did they wear it, and when gangs took after them? Or was it simultaneous?”
The New York Times called this look “Raiders chic” back in 1991. Even then, the image-conscious NFL wanted to enlist “a rap music star” to deliver a televised message that would “insist that youths can stand against violence and drugs and still wear team caps.”
Los Angeles fans, of course, still root and pine for the Raiders in a way that they’ve never done for other local NFL teams. Walk down the street in Los Angeles and you’ll see a smattering of Rams gear, nobody in Chargers anything, but a stream of Raiders flags and jerseys that rivals that of the Dodgers.
Ice Cube, who maybe more than anybody helped fuse rap culture and the Raiders brand over his career, told Newsday that the team resonated with Los Angeles in a way that almost no other teams did.
“The team to me spoke to an L.A. that was unseen to the rest of the world,” he said. “When most people saw L.A. in the ‘80s they saw the Showtime Lakers or ’84 Olympics, fun and sun kind of thing. But we knew an L.A. that was a lot more grimy, the underside of Los Angeles. And the Raiders kind of represented all of that. And they played right there in the community.”
Greg, a Southern California native who works in film and has been a Raiders fan since birth, says that he believes the NFL didn’t want to let the Raiders move to Los Angeles because of the image of the fans there. But he also doesn’t see the upcoming move as a bad idea. Vegas, he believes, is a perfect spot for the silver and black.
“I love the sleazy, shitty, lowbrow world of the Raiders,” he says. “Vegas embodies that. No fucks given, no pretense. Football in its purest form: bloodsport for entertainment and gambling.”
Still, Oakland losing the Raiders is affecting one of the most devoted and faithful fan bases in the NFL. They’re a dedicated group who have traveled up and down the California coast to find their team wherever they’ve been. Raiders fans are also, by far, one of the most diverse in the league, with a large Black and Latino following other teams can’t claim. When the NFL holds games down in Mexico City, that door is at least partially opened because the Raiders are more or less the official team of La Raza, a term popularized during the Chicano pride movement in the 1970s to describe Hispanic-Americans. Los Angeles County is home to 4.8 million Hispanic people, nine percent of the total US Hispanic population. The Raiders connected with the Hispanic community in ways that no other team save the Dodgers has before or since, so the team has helped to foster international fandom to the south.
Now they’ll be transferred to a remote desert outpost, in a city that the league has done its best to ignore for decades, to try to make their bones again. And if, or when, Derek Carr rides in a float down the Las Vegas Strip, holding the Lombardi trophy aloft, you can bet he’ll be surrounded by lifelong black-clad fans chanting his name under the desert sun, many of whom have had to follow their wandering team that doesn’t seem to care much about them at all.