The legal feud between Raiders owner Al Davis and the National Football League is the kind of juicy stuff that ought to be hard to screw up, but ESPN manages to do just that with “Al Davis vs. the NFL,” a “30 for 30” documentary that fumbles away a juicy premise with one exceptionally bad call: Using “deep fake” replicas of Davis and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, both long deceased, to tell the story.
Given the rich archival material at the producers’ fingertips, director Ken Rodgers could have easily foregone the razzle dazzle and crafted a fascinating film about Davis’ battle with the league, which helped turn enormously lucrative NFL franchises into the city-hopping mercenaries that they became thanks to those efforts.
As it is, the creepy-looking digital versions of Rozelle and Davis serves as a glaring and unnecessary distraction, unless you really want your football history mixed with a cheaper version of the technology that brought Peter Cushing to life in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” In football terms, it’s like running a trick play for absolutely no reason.
Premiering during the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the documentary is otherwise an especially appropriate window into the financial power that the NFL possesses as the most popular sport in the US.
Both Davis and Rozelle began in pro football during its relative infancy, before the merger of the American and National leagues and the introduction of the Super Bowl. Davis went on to control the Raiders, instilling a ruthless attitude worthy of its pirate logo that embraced intimidation, operating in an era when standards of what constituted dirty hits and excessive roughness were considerably laxer.
Rozelle, for his part, brought great business acumen to steering the NFL into the world of television, with all the riches that entailed. But he found a regular source of consternation in Davis, who decided to move the team to Los Angeles over the league’s objections in 1980, leading to a protracted legal skirmish even as the Raiders piled up victories on the gridiron.
Davis wasn’t a “team player,” Rozelle says, which exhibits a gift for understatement; instead, he exemplified the “Just win, baby” mentality that became the team’s mantra, whether in executive suites, courthouses or on the field.
In a telling admission later, Rozelle addresses the years-long struggle with Davis in an interview by saying, “How much longer are you going to fight with a man who will never, ever get tired of fighting?”
Davis was, indeed, relentless, although in a clip he appears genuinely sad hearing the news of Rozelle’s retirement, indicating his respect for him as a sparring partner.
Together, few figures have done more to turn the NFL into the behemoth that will be on full display during the weekend’s Super Bowl festivities. It’s a story that certainly didn’t need the embellishment that ESPN brings to it, delivering a hit to its credibility from which “Al Davis vs. the NFL” can’t recover.
“Al Davis vs. the NFL” premieres Feb. 4 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.