Fear of a Silver and Black Planet

Academics descend into the black hole with Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire

Everything was looking up for Jim Miller. His beloved Raiders made it to Super Bowl XXXVII, the NFL's 2003 championship game was being played just down the road from his San Diego home, and his hero Hunter S. Thompson had jumped on the silver-and-black bandwagon, predicting "the Raiders will have fun. All others will suffer."

How could those be anything but good omens?

Football fans know the story: traitor coach Jon Gruden—he'd coached the Raiders the season before—and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers did more than win. They humiliated the Raiders, 48-21. "There was no relief, no mercy, no place to hide from it," Thompson had to write, crow feathers trickling down his chin, "and no sane way to explain it."

The insanity did not end there. Riots broke out in Oakland's inner city after the game. And a not-so-good time was had by all.

Against this backdrop, Miller and Kelly Mayhew begin their new book, Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire(The New Press). They are both Raider fans, a couple and fellow professors of English, philosophy and humanities at San Diego City College, where Miller also has labor studies lumped onto his business card. They also co-authored Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See with UC Irvine urban theorist Mike Davis (also from The New Press).

Better to Reign in Hell does not read like a dry academic paper, nor is it post-postmodern doomsaying. Miller's Super Bowl chapter, "Bin Laden Is a Raider Fan," is breezy and funny, a practical in-the-author's-body experience as the reader winds through the sights, slights and smells of San Diego during Super Bowl week. While that chapter was engaging—a style that's employed again in pages devoted to the following season's training camp, pre-season games and even a hair-pulling, clothes-ripping Raider chick fight—the book does get more scholarly as it examines the Raider fan image.

The common view of a Raider fan—wears wild costumes, assaults opposing fans, drinks the blood of children—is traced back to the days of dirty defenders Ted Hendricks and Jack Tatum through to the John Matuszak-era Raiders of Los Angeles, and on to the teams Miller and Mayhew followed that included Mr. Sunshine: Bill Romanowski. Better to Reign in Hell also argues that conditions in Oakland, and later LA, and then Oakland again, contribute to the bad rep. Oaktown was a rough place long before there was an AFL, let alone NFL, and more recent de-industrialization, ghettoization and globalization—attributes the city shares with LA, it should be noted—have reinforced that view.

But, the authors say, many in Oakland believe the team's boosters became thuggish when the Raiders moved to LA, where its logo and colors were adopted by South Central gangbangers. That "gang mentality," this reasoning goes, followed the Raiders to Oakland for Act Two. As evidence, the northern Californians point to—you guessed it—the 2003 Super Bowl riots. After all, the violence was confined to the inner-city flatlands, not the more middle-class hills.

That reasoning is a convenient cop-out, Miller writes. "Consistently refusing to address the deep, seemingly intractable structural economic and social problems that are the breeding ground for events like the Raider riots, California has chosen instead to moralize and punish, mocking attempts to 'understand' as failed liberal relics and speaking piously of 'family values' and 'personal responsibility.' As a result, our society has become what Barry Glassner (author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, and So Much More [Basic Books]) has called a 'culture of fear' that blows events like the Super Bowl riots out of proportion, making demons out of young 'Raider thugs' and blaming them for conditions not of their making."

Better to Reign in Hell lays out a compelling argument that suggests the true agenda behind much of the Raider fan bashing is good old-fashioned racism. "[H]ating 'Raiders fans' is a good way to express general prejudices about race and class that they might perhaps keep to themselves in a different context," the authors write.

Indeed, the authors say, the Raiders' pirate image and logo, and slogans—like "commitment to excellence" and "just win, baby"—have helped create a mostly positive subculture, bringing together thugs and cops, white collars and blue collars, drunken heathens and sober Christians. It's a fuller—and brighter—picture of Raider fandom.

And it's endangered. The book sympathetically points out that, to remain competitive in his division, Raiders owner Al Davis must come up with ways to get more luxury-box (read: corporate) revenue—although his current tactics (suing the city and threatening to leave town) do make him look like a villain. These economic realities, of course, will ultimately drive from the Oakland stadium the average Joe cops, firemen, ironworkers and inner-city activists, and costumed superfans like Gorilla Rilla, Señor Raider Man, Black Hole Mike and Raider Gloria. Replacing them will be the kind of blow-dried, chardonnay-swilling, Brie-munching, knit-sweater-over-the-shoulder-wearing yuppity-yups you now find at that shiny 49ers temple across the Bay.

Who the hell wants that?

BETTER TO REIGN IN HELL: INSIDE THE RAIDERS FAN EMPIRE BY JIM MILLER AND KELLY MAYHEW; THE NEW PRESS. HARD COVER, 352 PAGES, $26.95.

 
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