Near the beginning of his book, Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire (co-written with wife Kelly Mayhew), Jim Miller describes going to the 2003 Super Bowl, a journey that began with three trips from San Diego to Oakland to see his gridiron heroes work their way up the playoff ladder to the top spot.
Miller, an English and labor-studies professor at San Diego City College and lifelong Raiders fan, was able to secure tickets for himself and a couple of pals-at $2,000 apiece-from a San Diego punk-rock band. The three took in a game-day breakfast of Bloody Marys and machaca at workingman's pub, the Waterfront, and headed to Qualcomm Stadium where, thanks to the rock stars, they had tickets to the VIP tailgate party in the parking lot. It was like a scene from The Great Gatsby, Miller writes: free food, free beer, a pour-your-own-tequila tent and a live performance by Bonnie Raitt. Emerging from the shindig "overfed and drunk as skunks," the three men headed to the stadium to watch their beloved Raiders lose and the team's angry fans charge through security barriers on their way to the trolley. And that didn't even come close to the destruction inflicted on Oakland by angry Raiders fans.
Miller tells this story in a chapter titled, "Bin Laden is a Raider Fan"-at once a reference to a sticker he saw plastered on the wall at the Waterfront, but also a nod to the general perception of Raider fans.
"Could it be that Raider Nation had secretly been put on the list of twenty-five countries suspected by the Justice Department of harboring or sponsoring terrorists?" Miller jokes. "If this was their plan," he writes, "they were going to have to sacrifice a lot of "innocents' to get to the few genuine Raiders fanatics who'd managed to crash the party."
Super Bowl 2003 marked the start of Miller and Mayhew's two-year quest to deconstruct Raider Nation and get to the heart of the singular football-fan subculture. Does the team, for instance, indeed attract thugs, gang-bangers and parking-lot fight-pickers? Think about it: you're walking down a dark street and the guy walking toward you sports a Raiders jersey. What's going through your mind?
To some extent, the tough-guy front put up by Raider fans is true. Miller and Mayhew spoke to a woman who runs a nonprofit youth-employment agency in the heart of Oakland, which sustained significant damage in the post-Super Bowl riot. "The [Raiders] culture doesn't operate on an intellectual level. It's the rage-that in-your-face, don't be pushed around... thing," she told them.
But then, what about the law-abiding fan whose identity as a Raider supporter transcends the team itself? Like the guy the couple interviewed from Minnesota who dresses his cat up in Raider gear for every game, or the kid from Europe who sent Miller and Mayhew an e-mail describing his trip to the Oakland Coliseum, known as "The House of Thrills" in Raider-fan speak. "I have had the pleasure of going to HOT twice," he wrote, "and it is truly a holy place."
"The feared image of Raider Nation is part fact and part fiction," Miller writes. "More than any other fandom in American professional sports, Raiders aficionados' devotion goes beyond sports."
As the couple found out in two years of going to games, wandering the Oakland Coliseum parking lot for pre-game tailgate parties-at which they were treated like family-and hanging out in the Raider-fan bars surrounding the stadium, the bulk of Raider fans are blue-collar workers for whom the team, winning record or not (lately it's been more of the not), fills the void of what's missing from their lives-fandom becomes a "surrogate religion" as sports sociologist Eric Dunning points out, a rallying point against forces over which they have little control. Sports fandom in any culture has always been spurred by the need for an outlet. The "bread and circuses" of ancient Rome were sporting events staged to calm the masses and give them something else to focus on besides politics and government.
Other sports teams indeed have their fans but the Raiders have a persona, said Mayhew, also an English professor at San Diego City College. "People adopt the image of the Raider-outlaw kind of person. That makes them distinct from other fan cultures. After all, you're a Green Bay Packer, what are you?" she laughs.
This Sunday marks the Raiders return to San Diego for the second time since their Super Bowl loss in 2003. And with their 4-7 record versus the Chargers' 7-4, they're not expected to win (even though in the two teams' competitive history, the Raiders have won 54 games to the Chargers' 34). Even Miller holds little hope for anything more than seeing his team get creamed. Predictions aside, a visit from the Raiders makes San Diegans a little nervous. The game, Mayhew said, draws "bereft L.A. Raider fans who for the Chargers game it's a two-hour drive versus a seven-hour drive" to Oakland.
Significant to understanding the Raiders' fan base is a look at the team's ties to ethnically diverse, economically struggling areas-first Oakland, then L.A., then back to Oakland. The early Raiders, Mayhew said, were the team of Oakland's working class. Raider followers, she said, "were seen as kind of a lunch-bucket fan base... sort of tough, but you could bring your family to the game."
"Romantic working class," Miller adds.
"Working-class-rebel kind of image," Mayhew continued.
When the team moved to L.A. they acquired more of a hardcore image, Miller said. "It's around that time that crack hit the streets and gangs exploded. You lost good-paying jobs and [the economy] kind of bottomed out." Raider games at the L.A. Coliseum were literally in the center of all that.
L.A. ties to the team still run deep, spurred on, at times, by underlying racism that creates an us-against-them mentality, perhaps the strongest community-building force. As one L.A. Raider fan Miller interviewed said, "[T]o some of these San Diego people it's the Mexican invasion.... It's the blacks and the Mexicans. That's the biggest fear of conservatives in California-that blacks and Mexicans unite. Oh, it's Raiders weekend, right? And it's almost an invasion of San Diego."
Miller has witnessed a fair share of race-based comments hurled at Chicano Raiders fans by opposing teams' fans. Being a Raider fan, in that case, becomes as much about racial identity as team identity. It was at a store in L.A. where Miller picked up an "Aztlan Raider" T-shirt. And, in the book's publicity photo, he sports a "Revolutionary Raider" shirt with a screen-print of Ché Guevara.
In 1992, the Raiders moved back to Oakland, "a city," Miller writes, "that had 113 murders in 2002 along with a massive budget deficit and a troubled school system." To Oaklanders, at least those living in "the Flats" (as opposed to the more well-off hills where football fans tend to favor the 49ers), "the Raiders represent a chimera of hope and pride."
This is exemplified in one very telling tragedy attached to the book. The guy in elaborate silver and gray facepaint whose photo is featured on Page 140 was among the loyal fans Miller and Mayhew encountered in the parking lot who couldn't afford a ticket, yet still went for the camaraderie and the chance that someone might offer them a spare ticket for free-"I need a miracle" the photo caption reads. In the 300-plus-page book, the guy, "Larry the Raiderman," who "looked vaguely like a Raiders hobbit," Miller writes, gets a brief few sentences. Yet that became for him a huge source of pride. The last week in October, Miller and Mayhew received a call from a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who told them Larry had been struck in the head by a stray bullet intended for a rival gang member outside. He had no gang connections; he was merely sitting in his living room.
"Shows you how much his fan identity was important to him, but also how brutally ironic it is that this Raider fan who's supposed to be this horrible, violent guy was just sitting in his house and died from a random gang shooting," Miller said. "Proves the opposite of the stereotype."