For the last 13 years, the Oakland Raiders have been an abysmal football team. Their 3-13 season last year was really nothing more than a slight variation of the same disappointing tune the team has been humming since 2003. Sure, some years have been better than others (when the highlight over a decade was going 8-8 in back-to-back seasons, you know you’re rooting for a failed franchise) and some years have been much worse than others (just pick a season when JaMarcus Russell was the starting quarterback), but on the whole? Since that fateful, lachrymose showing at Super Bowl 37, this team just hasn’t been able to do much of anything on the gridiron.
High coaching turnover, coupled with even higher turnover at the QB position, made the Raiders a horribly inconsistent muddle of a team. Even worse, the team made disastrous pick after disastrous pick in the NFL draft, and their free agent signings — who can forget all that money that spent on Warren Sapp and Randy Moss? — put the team in a salary cap hole that they are just now emerging from. Nothing short of a gypsy curse on the late Al Davis seems to explain the Raiders’ persistently horrible luck since ‘02 — it’s just been a perfect storm of horrible executive leadership, awful coaching and terrible on-field performances for almost a decade and a half now.
Alas, with a new-look offense, a much-improved defense and a new head coach last seen hobnobbing with Peyton Manning and company in Denver, the 2015 Raiders are poised to be the best squad the franchise has mustered since the heyday of Rich Gannon, Tim Brown and Charlie Garner. Of course, all it takes is one misfortunate tackle — halfback stud Latavious Murray blows his knees, first-round pick Amari Cooper tears his ACL, new franchise QB Derek Carr incurs a neck injury, etc. — and all of a sudden, this team is right back to wallowing in the blackest of Black Holes. Alas, on paper at least, this looks to be the year the Raiders finally right the ship and hop back into AFC West relevancy. They may not be a playoff contender quite yet, but with the auger of at least hitting .500 again, it’s hard to not get excited about the future if you’re a Raiders fan. Well, pending you’re not a Raiders fan who actually lives in Oakland, of course.
As terrible as the team has been — and rest assured, they have been terrible — my support for the Raiders has never wavered. Each and every August over the last 13 years, hope springs (or more accurately, falls) anew, as the prospect of a potentially not that horrible season arises. Each year, the team finds a new way to break my heart, and every year, I embrace them wholeheartedly. “Just Win, Baby” and “Commitment to Excellence” might be the more popularized sayings, but the real motto of the Oakland Raiders fan is “This year will be different.”
To the outsider, I suppose the obvious question is why? Why would someone who lives 3,000 miles away from the O.Co Coliseum invest so much in something that has so little bearing on his actual life? Why do I care so much about the outcomes of these stupid games, and why does it sting so bad when the Raiders lose (and, although rare, why does it feel so great when they win?)
To understand Raider Nation fandom, you must first understand what makes the Raiders different from the 31 other teams in the NFL (and no, it’s not that they’ve sucked for a long time, you smart aleck.) In a lot of ways, the Raiders are the anti-NFL team; whereas the Packers, Cowboys and Patriots pride themselves on some sort of fundamental football and organizational excellence, the Raiders have ALWAYS been about attitude.
Contrary to the famous Al Davis quip, how the Raiders win means as much as if they win at all. This is a franchise forged by Al’s unrepentant hatred of the National Football League hierarchy and its clean-cut, squeaky-clean, corporate-sanitized image. The Raiders of the 1970s epitomized a style of play that really lent itself more to prison assault than pro football; they hit so hard and played so rough that the Pittsburgh Steelers leadership once sought actual criminal damages against them for on-the-turf “battery.” Further typifying the take-no-prisoners, borderline sociopath style of play, legendary Raider Jack Tatum didn’t even apologize when he permanently paralyzed New England’s Darryl Stingley during a ruthless on-field collision.
That ghastly defensive play was a hallmark of the Raiders during their pass-happy, Kenny Stabler and John Madden-led West-Cast Offense years, as well as their more run-oriented Marcus Allen/Bo Jackson/Tom Flores Silver Age in the ‘80s. Sans a true franchise QB, however, the team slipped into mediocrity during the ‘90s, experienced a brief resurgence from 1999 to 2003, and has been a pale shadow of itself since.
Even when they were winning Super Bowls, however, the Raiders were a dysfunctional franchise. Al Davis more or less built those championship squads around all of the outcasts, malcontents and maniacs all the other teams in the League couldn’t handle. You came to Oakland, and later L.A., for a second chance; Al and company found a way to harness your inert psychoses into effective gridiron play, and you simply mangled and mutilated your way to glory. That sense of violent desperation, I believe, is what draws people to Raider Nation. If you grew up in a happy family with food always on the table, you really don’t have a reason to root for the Silver and Black. To be a Raiders fan, you have to have a chip on your shoulder, a thirst for vengeance against something. I’ve never met a truly laid-back Raiders fan — we’re the kind of people who live and die with games, who feel the entire emotional spectrum over the course of 60 minutes of play. Raiders fans have a reputation for being lawless and aggressive, but really, we just feel all the emotions you can feel about football at a higher level than other fans. There are no bandwagon Raiders fans, no lethargic, fair-weather Johnny-Come-Latelies with a passing interest in the team at midseason. When the Raiders win a regular season game, their fans celebrate like it’s a playoff victory. When they beat one of their AFC West divisional rivals or the Niners, it results in pretty much the exact same jubilation you would see when any other team wins the Super Bowl.
Raiders fans are the most passionate NFL fans, bar none. In fact, I’d probably go as far as to say that Raider Nation is the most passionate sports fan base ANYWHERE in the U.S., professional or college. The import of the Raiders on the average Raiders fan’s life is just as significant as the team pride that hardcore soccer fans in South America and hardcore hockey fans feel in Canada. More than just a simple affiliation, it’s a major component of who they are as a human being. There’s an undeniable vivacity displayed by Raiders fans in autumn, and an unquestionable existential sadness from February to August. Raider fandom is so enmeshed in our psyche that we feel completely lost during the off-season; that’s something I highly doubt you’d hear out of the mouth of the aggregate Cardinals or Falcons “fan.”
There’s a certain gravity to the team that’s hard to explain. Yes, the uniforms are cool and they were a great team in “Tecmo Super Bowl” on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but that’s not what kept me pulling for the team. What made me a Raiders fan was that incredible fraternity among other fans, whom despite being different races and often speaking different languages, all seemed to share the same socioeconomic story. White, black, Hispanic or Asian, just about all of the Raiders fans I’ve become close friends with grew up in working class families, if not worse financial predicaments. The on-field struggle each and every fall always mirrored their own struggles against poverty, lower-middle-class stagnation and a whole host of other economic barriers. As rowdy and raucous as the Raiders faithful get, there’s also an unusual sense of personal defeatism that runs rampant throughout the fan community. They’ve been beat down hard by life, and the Raiders symbolize swinging the proverbial sledgehammer to beat it back.
The Nation is an eclectic bunch, to be sure. I’ve never encountered an NFL fan group so diverse, culturally or geographically. Conservative, liberal, religious, atheist, party animal, straight-edge — among Raiders fans, all of these qualifiers take a backseat to the core identity of being a Raiders fan. As Silver and Black brethren, we’re all on the same team, doing battle against the same foes. On Sundays, Mondays and the aberrant Thursday and Saturday night, it’s the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it’s the rent, the bills and stagnant wages. I’ve yet to meet a single Raiders fan who has told me that he or she has a happy, complacent existence. With a disposition like that, you might as well be rooting for the Colts or the Texans or the Vikings or any of those other indistinguishable teams from the heartland — the only time a Raiders fan is permitted to smile is when someone in an opposing jersey gets carted off the field … or out of the bleachers with a knife wound.
Normal people from normal families with normal jobs don’t become Raiders fans. To be a part of the Nation, you have to be a rebel, a renegade, someone going against the grain. You have to want to wear black all year round and paint your face silver and hug perfect strangers who may or may not have felonies on their record. You have to want to see people get their heads knocked clean off their shoulders and you have to want to see halfbacks bulldozing over defenders. You have to want to fist fight other men for simply wearing the wrong colored jersey and you have to want to scare the holy hell out of women and children out of team loyalty.
That’s a collective mentality that you just don’t see out of any other NFL fan base. It’s crude and it’s rude and perhaps it’s a little absurd, but that connection is nonetheless genuine. That’s the glorious, needlessly-violent, hyper-passionate raison d’etre that compels me to throw on a Silver and Black hoodie every Sunday and scream at the TV at the local sports bar like a mental patient. It’s all about commitment and pride and cathartic fury and putting a symbolic black eye on the myriad day-in, day-out worries you experience throughout this grueling, triple O.T. playoff game called life.
As a Raiders fan, you force yourself to find hope while staring into an abyss of uncertainty, lowered expectations and mindless savagery. Much more than pro football philosophy, that’s pretty much the Raiders fans’ shared outlook on life itself. Win, lose or tie, that’s an awfully sound Weltanschauung — and one I plan on holding dear until the day me and my Silver and Black casket are chucked six feet under.