When it was learned near the end of the National Football League meetings at Phoenix a week ago that Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Raider owner Al Davis had met privately with their seconds, the first question was obvious:
Who brought the pistols?
Surprisingly, though, it was a conciliatory session designed to lay the groundwork for a settlement of the claims Davis and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are due from the league, which in 1983 was found to have tried to obstruct the Raiders' move from Oakland.
The promising peace talks may collapse, however, unless Oakland cooperates. That city's eminent domain lawsuit to reclaim the Raiders is pending in state appellate court and appears to be a roadblock to any out-of-court settlement.
State Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), chairman of the Coliseum Commission's negotiating committee, said: "Part of the settlement that we're asking for is dropping of the eminent domain suit by Oakland. It creates an uncertainty."
But George Vukasin, president of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum board, said: "There are no intentions at this time of dropping the eminent domain suit."
A way out might be for the NFL to offer Oakland an expansion franchise, but even that might not be enough. The city is counting on winning the appeal, and a decision is due in the next two months.
Joe Browne, the NFL's director of communications, said: "The Oakland issue is not on the table at this point. We're at such a preliminary stage that we're focusing right now on the financial figures."
Al LoCasale, Davis' longtime aide, said that Davis would not make a unilateral settlement with the league. "There's no way we're going to do this without the Coliseum," he said.
The original awards two years ago were $11.6 million to the Raiders and $4.9 to the Coliseum, tripled for damages to $34.5 million and $14.7 million, plus interest accumulating at $15,000 a day.
Those figures are under review in appeals court, however, and there is speculation that the damages could go as high as $80 million if the court also figures in legal fees and revenue lost by the Raiders in 1983, '84 and '85 because the luxury boxes planned for the Coliseum have not been built.
Indications are that Davis and the Coliseum would settle for $60 million, with the Raiders getting two-thirds.
Why would Davis, with his reputation as an alley fighter, offer to settle at all?
Because, it seems, some of the other owners want him back in the mainstream.
Alex Spanos, who bought the San Diego Chargers last year, is a longtime friend of Davis. He was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner as favoring a settlement so that Davis could once again have a strong voice in NFL policies.
Five NFL teams have changed hands in the last two years. Spanos represents new ownership that may be more attuned to Davis' philosophies than Rozelle's, which are generally supported by the league's old guard.
Campbell said: "There's still one feeling in the NFL that Al Davis is a veritable genius when it comes to football, not only in putting a team on the field but in managing his organization."
Davis would not comment this week about a possible settlement, but LoCasale was not reticent.
"The people who have come in and laid out a ton (of money) realize that Al is probably the single most dynamic force at the ownership level," he said.
The conciliatory seed was planted, LoCasale said, during an executive session of the owners March 13.
LoCasale, who was at the session with Davis, said: "He asked for time to speak to the league. A number of owners had approached him recently, saying that 'We need to get this thing behind you. We need to get you back in a leadership position.'
"Al, in a very driving, forceful speech, established a conciliatory climate."
At one point, LoCasale said, Davis told the other owners: "Pardon me, ladies (a reference to Ram owner Georgia Frontiere, for one), but if we have to continue on, we're going to have to kick your ass even more."
LoCasale added: "When he finished going through the problems football is facing, someone said, 'What can we do from here?'
"(Davis) said, 'The guy sitting up there at that table (Rozelle) has created the situation we're in. He has to make a determination of the route he wants to take.' And Pete said, 'I would like to talk. I am very willing to talk.' "
They agreed to meet, each accompanied by an aide.
The next day, they met for 45 minutes. LoCasale held Davis' coat. John Nordstrom, the Seattle Seahawks' managing partner, held Rozelle's.
Browne said there also had been a brief phone talk Friday morning and another meeting Friday afternoon.
"They discussed some financial figures," he said. "(Oakland's eminent-domain suit) was not discussed."
LoCasale was skeptical of Oakland's confidence in winning the eminent domain appeal, pointing out that at Phoenix, Oakland representatives had had a hospitality room opposite the league meeting room, in which was displayed a model of a proposed $90-million football stadium. The delegation included Vukasin and Mayor Lionel Wilson.
"They were making a presentation for an expansion team," LoCasale said. "Suddenly, Oakland is able to find $90 million for this new stadium. If they had spent just $1 million at the proper time, they might not have had to go through any of this."
Campbell, speaking by phone from Sacramento, said that Davis had approached him about a settlement shortly before the Phoenix meetings and that the idea had appealed to him.
"It's just been dragging on for such a long time," Campbell said. "If we could get it behind us . . . we could begin constructing the suites and improving the stadium right away.
"It's difficult for the Raiders to build the boxes while the suit is still out there and, with the appeal procedure, you're still talking about another 12 months. Then we lose the building season of 1986."
Last season, Raider ticket sales set an NFL record of $10,271,000 and average attendance at Raider games was 67,795, fourth in the league.
"Just think what we could have done if we could have promoted with the assurance the team was going to stay there," Campbell said.