By Gregory Crofton
What better time to explore the origins of the NFL than the days before Super Bowl 55?
Director Ken Rodgers (“The Two Bills,” “Elway to Marino”) has done just that with “Al Davis vs. The NFL” set to premiere tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Central.
For the first time in a sports film, Rodgers utilized “Deepfake” technology to bring back Al Davis and Pete Rozelle, two rivals whose careers shaped what we know today as the National Football League and the dazzling stadiums that come with it.
At first glance the conjured images of these two men are a little disconcerting, but Rodgers said there will be a filmmaker’s introduction for the broadcast explaining the technology, which involves putting digital masks on actors.
“The voices were impressionists that were hired,” Rodgers said in a recent phone interview. “What you’re looking at is a real amalgamation of parts.”
Tech aside — “Deepfake” is only used sporadically — there’s a lot to see and learn in this rich, archival football film. Like the fact that the NFL was once two different leagues that came together for its first Super Bowl in 1967.
In addition to making feature films, Rodgers is the show runner for HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which captures an NFL team training camp each year. He also has deep roots at NFL Films where he was hired by Steve Sabol, son of Ed Sabol, who founded the organization in 1962.
And during his time at NFL Films Rodgers did have a chance to meet Al Davis, the legendary owner of Raiders.
“He ran the Raiders so strongly that the franchise took on his personality, and that was all about winning and it had nothing to do with personal glory,” Rodgers said. “It was amazingly unselfish, and that’s something you wouldn’t think if you just saw the sort of base layer of Al Davis with the jumpsuits and jewelry and the brash personality.”
While Davis was focused on the Raiders winning, his rival Pete Rozelle, the first commissioner of the NFL, had the same goal for the league. Eventually the two men would butt heads.
In 1980 Davis moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles so games could be held at the more modern Los Angeles Coliseum. This way he could generate more revenue and afford to pay for better football players for the Raiders.
As commissioner, it was Rozelle’s job to make sure an organized process was in place when a franchisee decided to pick up and leave a city. Was it the best thing for the league as a whole? If that answer was ‘Yes,’ he would still need all NFL owners to sign off on the move.
That didn’t happen. The conflict resulted in a lawsuit, “Al Davis vs. The NFL.” It became a drawn out court battle that wore both men down, as well as other owners. Ultimately the determination of Davis and Rozelle, and the push and pull between them, created the competitive, aggressive and lucrative NFL of today.
Below find our full interview with Rodgers and a trailer for the film. The conversation includes more NFL history.
Channel Nonfiction: Why did you decide to tell this story right now?
Ken Rodgers: First of all, Al Davis is one of the greatest characters in NFL history, there is no denying that. We’ve always felt that at NFL Films. We’ve long been fascinated with him even the decades before I started working there where he had an antagonistic relationship with us, with Steve and Ed Sable. It wasn’t a nasty relationship, but it was that type where if we did a countdown show and the Raiders weren’t ranked as No. 1 franchise or the No. 1 Super Bowl team or the No. 1 whatever, he was upset, ‘What’s with the East Coast bias, with the fact that the Raiders aren’t No. 1?’
2020 seemed to me the end of a a story, the end of a larger story, the end of hostilities between the Raiders and the National Football League. And really the end of hostilities still left over between Al Davis and Peter Rozelle, even though they were both deceased. And that antagonism was still in the air. There were decades upon decades of feuds between the two of them and 2020 felt to me like the end of hostilities because the next generation put to rest the wars of the previous generation. Mark Davis, son of Al Davis, and Commissioner Goodell, follower of Commissioner Rozelle, found a way to solve the stadium issue that was the central disagreement between Al and Pete for well over a decade. The building of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and the opening of it this year seemed to me to be the perfect time to look back on the war that was and maybe put it to rest once and for all.
CN: I was surprised to see that Al Davis had a son, and he’s now in charge of the Raiders?
He is. I think it’s clear at the end of the film that he learned a lot through the tolls his Dad paid. Both Al Davis and Pete Rozelle paid personal tolls going through this war. They both had very strong beliefs, and you know they paid the tolls physically, emotionally, mentally. I think both Commissioner Goodell and Mark Davis saw that firsthand and decided both personally and professionally to not take that tack. To use sugar instead of salt to cook, you know, in this relationship between two really incredible institutions, the National Football League as an entity, and the Raiders as a singular brand.
Channel Nonfiction: Did this lawsuit have ramifications for sports outside of professional football?
Rodgers: So Al was so ahead of his time in that he realized how competitive the entertainment space was going to be for the consumer’s dollar. And that keeping stadiums state of the art and upgrading them wasn’t just a vanity project for ownership as it sometimes seemed. It is a mandatory way for a franchise to stay competitive against not only other sports today, but against Netflix and Amazon and everything else in the marketplace that is competing for dollars. The stadium experience has become part of the way people go to see a football game. The actual physical building is part of what’s cool about going to a football game. To see the massive structure, to sit in the luxury boxes, to eat the different types of food and not just the ballpark hotdogs you and I ate growing up, to see the different viewpoints and walk around and see the art installations, and the various different architecture each stadium has. It becomes a field trip for a family.
And that has become so valuable to keep the National Football League and other sports, that have new stadiums, competitive for those dollars. And those dollars are the only dollars in the NFL that aren’t shared amongst all the teams. So if that weren’t the case, if teams weren’t able to make revenue in those type of situations, you would have a team that has incredible stadiums having so much more revenue and then being able to spend so much more money; and therefore being able to have so much better players and you would have an inequity in the NFL that Al Davis didn’t want.
He wanted to be able to compete with every other team. His desire to have a world class stadium at all times was based on the football competitiveness. He didn’t necessarily care about who had the best stadium, he wanted to make sure he was able to field the best and provide the best chance of winning for his fan base. And it turns out that the NFL has done the best job for parity because of their focus on those sort of things that Al Davis foresaw coming.
CN: So Al Davis’ desire to be competitive to was 100% honest and true? It wasn’t about money at all?
Rodgers: All he cared about was football. Here was a guy who was not about collaboration, he was about competition. And that’s where he and Pete didn’t get along. Pete was a collaborator and that was sort of his role, his job to was get all the teams to collaborate. Al just wanted to win.
I only met the man once and it was later in life but I can tell from all the research I did — hours upon hours, days upon days of studying him — he was the type of guy that if you were walking down the hallway, he was gonna be the guy who finished getting to the end of the hallway first. He was a guy who lifted weights every day. He never drank, never smoked, he was just all about competing. And everything he did was with that in mind. It was never about himself or his own personal glory.
He was the Raiders’ brand, all he cared about was the Raiders getting the glory. In a way, you can take away the word Al Davis and put Raiders in its place and you’re sort of telling the same story. The two are sort of interchangeable because the way he viewed himself and the way he viewed the Raiders became synonymous. He ran the Raiders so strongly that the franchise took on his personality and that was all about winning and it had nothing to do with personal glory. It was amazingly unselfish and that’s something you wouldn’t think if you just saw the sort base layer of Al Davis with the jumpsuits and jewelry and you know the brash personality.
CN: That comes through, his true faith to the game, when they’re like, ‘There’s one thing you wanted to say right, Al?” and he said (to the camera), ‘Yeah, I wanted to make sure people know how good these cornerbacks are.”
Rodgers: Right. He was a coach, and a GM and a commissioner as well before he was an owner, and there’s a really strong argument that he was better at those roles than he was as an owner. He was great at all of them. To the day he died there are many, many people who continued to call him ‘coach’ because that’s the way he spoke as a coach.
CN: Let’s get into Rozelle a little bit. If both of these men were building blocks of the NFL, which blocks did each of them build in your opinion?
Rodgers: They both actually built simultaneously the brand of the NFL. Rozelle was responsible for building the brand of the shield, the NFL shield, the league as a whole, the sport of selling it through television. Making sure that it was front and center in this emerging format of television and making the deals that kept it at the forefront. Just decisions like Monday Night Football, and NFL Films, and NFL marketing divisions that no other leagues saw and took decades later.
And at the same time Al Davis developed a type of game and a type of football team that no one else was developing that you can see on the field today. The large personalities of the Raiders players, the aggressive defense, the big hits and the down field passing, aggressive offense is exactly what the NFL evolved into. With Lawrence Taylor and Joe Montana and Payton Manning and Von Miller, and everything we see today. He really took it out of the Lombardi conservative run four yards, run another four yards, get a first down … forty yards and a cloud-of-dirt-type of football.
He opened the game up in a way to this brashness that matched the brand of the Raiders that led to the popularity of the sport today. Everything that people tune in for didn’t exist until the Raiders. There was no such thing as defensive linemen you know destroying a quarterback the way Al Davis wanted them to. There were no big hits across the middle quite like Jack Tatum would lay people out. There was no down field passing the way Kenny Stabler would throw the deep ball the way Al Davis wanted it. He saw football in a completely a different way.
And while Pete was developing the brand of the sport, Al Davis was developing the brand of the game. And a lot of people sort of see them as the same, but the game is on the field, and Al Davis revolutionized that, while the sport, the business, the product was being revolutionized at the same exact time by Pete Rozelle. In another lifetime, they would have been best friends, they really would have. With a couple different personality changes they would have been best friends, in this world they were polar opposites.
CN: Yeah, you could feel they were flip sides of the same coin, especially because they both couldn’t play football but were still determined to be part of the sport.
Rodgers: Yeah. And I think it was almost like a state vs. federal viewpoint on the world. They both had good intentions, but Al had it on a more on a smaller state level. ‘I want was best for this franchise,’ and Rozelle had it on a more federal level, ‘Well I want what’s best for all the franchises.’ I think they always opposed each other, but knew that the other had a point. And I think the real climax of the story, of their relationship, really does come when Peter Rozelle retires, and the two of them embrace. I feel like the way Al Davis tells that story says it all. It’s not a casual retelling of that moment. You can tell how much the moment meant to him and in doing so you can see how much Peter Rozelle means to him.
CN: Was Al Davis decent to his players? They seemed like they were loyal to him?
Rodgers: Al Davis has introduced more people at Pro Football Hall of Fame than anybody else. He is legendary for his being there for anyone he has ever employed. John Madden has always said if he were in trouble and he had one call the only person he would call would be Al Davis. The lengths he would go for his players were legendary. So much so that the Raiders had the most robust alumni organization in the game. Al, and you can look it up, there are stories of Al Davis employing former players after they retired just to make sure that they continued to get paychecks. You know he would employ them in the organization in roles that didn’t really require a lot of work but made sure that they continued to get a paycheck if they were in financial trouble. He was loved by his players unlike any owner.
CN: This is an ESPN production, you work for NFL Films, you work on “Hard Knocks” for HBO, and then on top of that you mentioned Rozelle played a part in creating NFL Films? So can you describe how it all works and was Rozelle key to creating NFL Films?
Rodgers: In 1962, Ed Sabol, our founder, bid on the 1962 NFL championship game, the rights to film it. At the time it was just a bidding process of who could film the game and sell the highlight film. Ed Sabol was a retired overcoat salesman who wanted to make movies and won the rights. And Pete Rozelle had no idea who this Ed Sabol from Philadelphia was. And so before he awarded it to Ed Sabol, who had just bid double the previous year’s winning bid. He wanted to of course to meet Ed Sabol and say ‘Who are you?’ So they met over a cocktail lunch in New York City and ended up becoming really good friends.
And from that meeting, and that really successful film, was born NFL Films. And we began, as a company, filming every game with multiple cameras, every game played in the National Football League. Began making highlight films of every team, and began selling show on various networks and became part of the National Football League in the early 70s, rather than a separate company.
And ever since have been sort of I guess a marketing arm, but really a filmmaking arm, of the National Football League. I mean you can see by this film that we’re not afraid to tell whatever story in our history that needs to be told. We’re the filmmakers, we consider ourselves the historians of the National Football League. We’ve been filming behind the scenes and on the football field since 1962. That’s something that you can’t replace. ESPN didn’t start until 1979 or 1980, so way before sports television was even a thought, NFL Films was doing that sort of business.
So as an employee of NFL Films I get to make products films for all of our partners. I can go from making “Hard Knocks” for HBO in August to editing on one of our weekly shows like “Inside the NFL” for Showtime or “Turning Point” for Fox and then create and direct a “30 for 30” for ESPN that airs on Super Bowl week. And the NFL relationship with all of our partners is important, but when it comes to long form features you know ESPN’s “30 for 30s” really have become the gold standard in the business and we’ve just really loved doing what’s become pretty much one a year with them.
CN: How long did Sabol last at NFL Films. I know his son took over, right?
Rodgers: Yes, his son took over, Steve, who hired me. Both of them were with NFL Films till the day they died. Ed died I think at the age of 99 I believe. He wasn’t actually in the office in his later days, but Steve was a very good friend to myself and a lot of us in my generation and passed away in 2012. This coming August he will join his father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s been inducted, the ceremony was postponed because of Covid this past August. And this year he will join his father Ed and they will both have busts in Canton, Ohio, as members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s really how high of esteem those two and what they created at NFL Films have around the football community and the sports television community.
CN: Do you have sports documentary to recommend?
Rodgers: A sports documentary, while I think about that, I can tell you the documentary I’ve always been fascinated with is “Hearts of Darkness,” which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Apocalypse Now” filmed by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife (Eleanor) during the making of the film. It’s a real harrowing look at the filmmaking process. Growing up as a filmmaker, I was really affected by that film for sure.
CN: Sports documentaries, it seems like it’s a whole new genre, really, new being relative of course, it’s blown up. It came out of “Grantland” right? didn’t “30 for 30?”
Rodgers: Yeah, I don’t know the specific history of it, but it’s been around. The idea of sports documentaries have certainly been around for a long time. Boy, I’ve wanted to teach a course on sports documentaries because you could go back to the rebels of the 60s who did sports documentaries. You have the Brown family who did “The Endless Summer” and all the original surfing films. It was right around the time of the Sabols. The guy who founded Patagonia was making mountain climbing films at the same time in the 60s. There was Warren Miller was doing his early skiing films.
CN: I kind of got things off in the wrong direction. You’re right. What I was trying to get at was, obviously you’re making films, I mean this is about a lawsuit, you know. The Brady film (“The Great Brady Heist“) is about a stolen jersey; how are you able to make films out of these topics that in the past you might think you couldn’t make them?
Rodgers: It gets very, very hard. I was reminded a lot of my previous “30 for 30” “Elway to Marino” (2013) which was all about conversations that happened on phone calls during a draft no one was privy to, it really becomes difficult and I think technology really has to come into play. And that’s something we obviously embraced here with the “Deepfake” technology. I don’t think a lot of these stories would be possible 20 years ago where the tools you had were film and newspaper articles. We certainly could have in this case cast actors and done that sort of thing, which was done back in the day, but technology in general has opened up the types of stories we are able to tell.
CN: Oh I see. The “Deepfake,” what is that a hologram type technology?
Rodgers: Yeah, so in this film we bring back Al Davis and Pete Rozelle to speak on camera their spirits at least, and we did that by filming stand-ins and putting digital masks on top of the stand-ins faces. So just like you would put a Halloween on top of somebody we put a digital mask so that however the stand-in’s face moved that’s how the mask would move. So we were able to bring Al Davis and Pete Rozelle, in a way, back to life. And the causal term you’ll hear around the Internet is “deepfake.” That’s the technology to recreate a historical figure’s face on top of someone else’s face.
CN: Those words that they spoke … that was what you wrote? How did you come up with that dialogue?
Rodgers: That dialogue is based on available research and the public records of interviews that we did with them, and ESPN did with them, and other networks did with them. Of course no one has them recorded saying what they would say if they were spirits in 2020, speaking in the present tense about the past.
So we had to write the dialogue ourselves, but it’s all based upon what they said at the time and their stories and what they say and what they tell us are all true. Though their images are recreations, but their dialogue is all true and based on available research and we feel very confident that it’s exactly what they would actually say.
CN: And the voices, is it taken from their actual voices?
Rodgers: The voices were impressionists that were hired to create the voices. So really what you’re looking at is the real amalgamation of parts. It’s a stand-in with an impressionist with special effects. It’s a real technological potpourri, as I said it wouldn’t possible 20 years ago. We would have just to put an actor in a wig on stage in the stadium and hope for the best. He wouldn’t of sounded like Al Davis and he wouldn’t have looked like Al Davis and you would have thought less of the film because of it.
Now we’re in a point in history where we can do better. I think it’s probably just the start. I think filmmakers 30 years from now will probably look back on this film and laugh at the crude nature of it. That’s just the way technology goes.
CN: That’s great. Congratulations on deploying it.
Rodgers: Yes, you know I believe it’s the first sports documentary to do it. It’s certainly been done in special effects. It was done with Carrie Fischer of course in “Star Wars” films. There’s a good documentary on HBO called “Welcome to Chechnya” that did a really interesting thing with it where victims of war crimes spoke about what they went through and to protect their identity against their one-time tormentors, and torturers. “Deepfake” was employed to hide the identity of people testifying about the war crimes on camera. Just like we got rid of the actors portraying someone in using “Deepfake,” they got rid of the person in the shadow telling a story about what happened.
CN: On February 4th when it airs, are you going to have an explanation of “Deepfake” and let viewers know about it, or is it just going to be (present) in the film?
Rodgers: It’s just going to be in the film. So there is a filmmaker’s introduction to “30 for 30s” where I will be explaining how and why we did this … I think there will be behind-the-scenes pieces coming out in the next two weeks about it as well.
Find a trailer for “Al Davis vs. The NFL” below.