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OFF THE PLATE: JANUARY 2009

Obama and the Raiders: Why 'Raider Nation' and 'change' belong in the same sentence.

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When my sister, the editor of The Astute Recorder, asked me to write a column about what Raider fans and Obama supporters have in common, I had to think about it. How can one write about the significance of Obama's inauguration through the lens of football? Sports is a trivial subject in the context of this election.

Barack Obama's inauguration is an incredibly historic event. Forty years after Blacks in the South were able to gain the right to vote, eight years after African-American voters were disenfranchised through corrupt politics in South Florida, leading to a disastrous eight years of George W. Bush, the first Black President of the United States will be sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol this week. It is a victory not just for people of color, but for all people—the U.S. electorate finally overcame the legacy of racism in this country and for the first time elected a leader who is not a White male.

It shouldn't be a surprise that many Raider fans are also Barack Obama supporters. Some Raider Nation loyalists had their own page on BarackObama.com, hosting 148 events and raising more than $18,000. Based on their track records, you may not think that Obama supporters and Raider fans share much in common beyond the proud efforts of this Raider cohort. After all Obama supporters are celebrating a major victory. Raider fans haven't celebrated a significant win since 2002.

But Raider Nation has its own proud history when it comes to race and politics. Most folks may think that Al Davis is losing his mind these days, but his poor image hopefully will not overshadow the important social legacy that he has had on the National Football League.

During the 1960s, Al Davis served as the Commissioner of the new American Football League. During his tenure as Commissioner and head coach of the Raiders, Davis was known for recruitment of Black players while the NFL was slow to integrate. Many of the African-American players called the AFL the “Black League.” These players were instrumental in making the AFL competitive with the NFL and eventually led to the successful merger of the two leagues in 1970. In the 1960s Davis also started Tom Flores as the first Latino quarterback. Later Flores became the first Latino head coach, winning Superbowls for the Silver and Black in 1981 and 1984. In the '80s Davis hired former Raider star Art Shell as the first African-American head coach in the modern era, and the first and only woman chief executive of the league—Amy Trask as Chief Executive Officer in 1997.

Like Obama, Raider fans also have to deal with racist and classist stigma and stereotypes. The Raider fan base is largely blue-collar folks, and people of color. The team became associated with hip-hop culture during the 1980s, in particular when the team moved to L.A. It was during that era that wearing knee-length jerseys became the trend among inner-city youth in South L.A. and the silver and black jersey of the Raiders was the most popular. The team brought its tough working-class image and winning tradition to Southern California, garnering two Superbowls and a generation of inner-city fans. The emergence of West Coast hip-hop happened at the same time as the dominance of the Raiders in the NFL, so culturally their development was intertwined. It's no accident that many professional sports teams started to incorporate black into their team colors in that era (but that's for another article).

Despite these terribly lean years, the Raiders retain one of the most loyal fan bases in all of professional sports. Author Hunter S. Thompson lovingly called Raider fans: "[B]eyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single "roof..." If anything, the Raiders now share even more in common with their fans—now they are the underdogs, the team that's looked down upon by the league and the sports media. The Raiders have historically symbolized the marginalized, the alienated and disenfranchised in sports and society. They once had a proud tradition of being the home of the cast-offs and has-beens of the NFL, and making them winners. The Obama campaign has done the same for those who have been historically disillusioned or shut out from politics.

The decline of the Raiders began near the beginning of the George W. Bush regime—arguably the worst Presidential era in U.S. history. Maybe Obama's victory can be a symbol of the emergence of the Raiders from the worst era in their history. Ok. That might be a stretch, but these days us Raider fans are grabbing on to any sign of hope that we can get. Congratulations, President Obama. Yes we can.

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