Interview: Ken Rodgers on a Clash of the Titans in “Al Davis Vs. the NFL”

Of the many unique scenarios posed by the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, Ken Rodgers had found himself with access to the most magnificent set you could imagine when he set out to make “Al Davis Vs. the NFL,” having the full run of the newly built Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to himself when fans wouldn’t be allowed in attendance this season. The stadium was always set to be a central character in the film as a final home for the nomadic Raiders franchise whose owner Davis had long sparred with the league to find a local market where they could thrive on the West Coast, but given safety protocols, it was incumbent upon the filmmaker to use it in a far different way than he initially imagined.

In his capacity as Vice President of NFL Films, Rodgers and his team spent last year finding inspired ways to keep working, somehow doubling down to film two teams rather than one for the annually addictive fall training camp series “Hard Knocks” and covering game day as rigorously as they always have for a season when no matchup was safe from delay or cancellation, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that they uncovered a creative way to capture the feeling inside Allegiant without putting anyone at risk — summoning the spirits of Davis and league commissioner Pete Rozelle, both of whom have long since passed, to talk about their years-long feud leading up to the Raiders move to Los Angeles during the 1980s. Although Rodgers presides over the greatest historical archive in sports, owing to Ed and Steve Sabol’s dedication to documenting the game before even those in the league office thought to, “Al Davis Vs. the NFL” is only partially told with clips from the time, instead bringing Davis and Rozelle to life with the latest in deep fake technology and an attention to detail culled from deep dives into interviews they had given throughout the years to capture their inimitable voices.

The result is a lively look back at the iconoclastic Davis, who gained ownership of an NFL team through sheer force of will, initially selling scouting reports to squads before coming into the possession of an AFL team that would then be absorbed by the NFL, taking on the authority of the widely beloved Rozelle, who oversaw the growth of the league into America’s most popular sport after starting out as a PR man for the Rams. Although the Raiders long embraced their identity as outsiders, Davis’ feelings of being held back reached a boiling point when an opportunity to gain a greater TV deal playing at the Coliseum in Los Angeles was frowned upon by the NFL, the culmination of various slights the cantankerous owner clocked over the years, setting up a court battle that was every bit as ferocious as the action you’d see on the gridiron. Seeing Davis and Rozelle recall this period in their own words is as fun and fierce as you’d expect, and makes what went into eventually building Allegiant Stadium all the more remarkable.

With the film airing tonight on ESPN, Rodgers spoke about navigating a most complex year and such a thorny time in league history in “Al Davis Vs. the NFL,” as well as cleverly making use of what new technological tools he had available to him and bringing Davis and Rozelle back to life in a way that was true to who they were in spirit.

How did this come about?

This actually started as far back as you can go. NFL Films and Al Davis have always had a great relationship and he’s always been on the very top of our list as far as greatest characters in NFL history. He was always pushing Steve Sabol, my former boss, to feature the Raiders more and rank the Raiders higher on countdowns, [asking] “Why are the Giants featured so much on this show and not the Raiders?” There would be calls a few times a year to Steve complaining about the Raiders’ coverage and why it wasn’t more – or the most, I should say – because of course, Al believed in the Raiders, as he should have. And in the past few years, especially working with the Raiders on “Hard Knocks” two summers ago, I sensed a change in the relationship between the league office and the Raiders, a dissipation of grievances. Even though Al Davis and Pete Rozelle had long been deceased, [there still seemed to be] some animosity in the air from their wars. The agreement to move to Las Vegas and build Allegiant Stadium felt to me like a clearing of that air and a perfect time to make this documentary, not only about this rivalry, but about the end of the rivalry and Mark Davis and Commissioner Goodell in building this stadium, putting an end to the hostilities.

There’s always been a bit of a church and state relationship between the NFL and NFL Films, but is it difficult to make a film about the league’s internal politics like this?

Happily, it is not. It’s really a credit to the league office ever since Pete Rozelle. When he helped create NFL Films with Ed Sabol, our founder, he was wise enough to know that filmmakers know what they’re doing, just like commissioners know what they’re doing, just like businessmen know what they’re doing and PR people know what they’re doing and there are a lot of issues for the NFL to deal with. They have always been very trusting in our creation of history because we really do pride ourselves in being documentarians. That means telling the story as we saw it happen. We’ve been there. We were part of this. This isn’t something we’re conjecturing upon. We captured a lot of this footage, so they trusted us to tell the story and [although] the Raiders knew that Al Davis could come off as aggressive to some people, they knew that we were going to treat this story fairly on both sides and I think that’s what we ended up doing.

You’ve got such great personalities here you couldn’t leave it to anyone else to tell this story, but how did the deep fake process come about?

Well, you hit right on it. Deep fake wasn’t the first decision we made. The first decision we made was what point of view do we want to have this documentary be told from. Very early on, we decided we don’t want to interview people who were on the outside and get their perspective on this relationship. We want to hear from the two people who were in this relationship, especially since we had so much footage of them talking about each other and about the issues that they disagreed upon, so we wanted to allow Al Davis and Pete Rozelle to tell their own stories. Ten years ago, we might’ve cast our own actors and put wigs on them and said, “Here you go. You’re Al Davis and you’re Pete Rozelle” as many documentaries have done and will continue to do. But with the new deep fake technology, we thought it was a great opportunity at this point in history to take the leap and be the first sports documentary to use this technology, given the circumstances of this film and the desire to let Al and Pete to tell their own stories.

You really do get their voices right in any sense of the word. What was the responsibility of the script writing process?

Right. It wasn’t just their words, it was their voices that needed to be heard – it’s their cadence and their way of speaking, so while their physical visual representation was obviously fictional, the dialogue was written based very specifically on historical records and transcripts and deep research by our producers to make sure that we were inserting any opinions that weren’t Al Davis’ or Pete Rozelle’s. Although presented in 2020, these were the feelings of Pete Rozelle and Al Davis at the time, so we felt very confident in presenting them as their viewpoints were they still floating around in the spirit realm in Allegiant Stadium, [which] really fit the mood of the film because if you believe in the afterlife and that their spirits are still around, [you’d suspect] that they would be looking down at this new stadium and pretty pleased that the war that they fought for decades is finally over.

NFL Films is the gold standard when it comes to archival. Is it pretty easy these days to locate everything you need for a film like this or is it still a bit of a treasure hunt?

It’s still a treasure hunt. When you’re around as long as we’ve been, it’s a treasure hunt and we’re still not the only company in town, so our outside footage researchers really were the heroes of this film, both at ESPN and NFL Films. You can imagine when you watch the film how hard it was to track down the news reports of these characters on the courthouse steps and the small details like the news reports of an NFL owner having a heart attack on the stand, testifying against another person. This is before sports television was what it is today. There was no SportsCenter on every night reporting on the biggest news. There was no Twitter. I’m in my late 40s and [at the time], I was probably watching “The A-Team” or “Knight Rider” and I missed all these stories, so it took really deep research by our team of outside footage researchers to find stories that I had never heard of.

It’s amazing when you think you know the story and then you go in and look at day by day news reports and you see that history has a way of being condensed as years go by and when you go back and look at it uncondensed in a day by day world, there’s so many more details than you could’ve imagined. For example, I love the little kids in Oakland that we discovered, [which] was just a great find by our outside footage researcher Melissa Collins. She found this news report of two little boys in Oakland who were saving up their money to sue the Raiders for moving to Los Angeles and to have a little kid on television saying that he thinks Al Davis is an idiot was just such a time capsule into the early 1980s. I also think of the incredible salesman at the Raiders Super Bowl parade that was selling buttons from the previous parade and admitted he was selling buttons from Super Bowl XV because people don’t know the difference between the roman numeral XV and XVIII. There’s just little side characters that you find in news reports that I would’ve never known existed.

It was just wonderful. And it’s been remarkable what NFL Films has been able to accomplish during this year given the pandemic, including a full season of “Hard Knocks.” What have the past 12 months been like for you?

It’s definitely been the most challenging year in NFL Films’ history. “Hard Knocks” in particular was probably the most difficult production NFL Films has ever put on in terms of scope and challenges in the midst of the pandemic in August with two teams. That continued into the season where our crews had to go through testing protocols and all of the precautions in order to capture history, which is our number one goal as a company. It really extended to this film. Add on top of all the difficulties of deep fake and shooting on set at Allegiant Stadium, with just the logistics of putting a crew together and being together for 20 hours straight at a stadium and the distancing that has to be done, it requires a complete rethinking of how you shoot a scene and where I’m going to be with a monitor, so I’m distanced from everybody and how I’m not going to be able to go up to the actors and talk to them and how communication happens. It takes a total rethinking of an entire industry. It’s been quite a challenge and it’s been invigorating – and I hope none of us ever have to do it again.

“Al Davis Vs. the NFL” airs on February 4th on ESPN at 6 pm PST/9 pm EST on ESPN and will be available on ESPN+ following its broadcast debut.