Retiring player numbers has become a thing over the decades in sports, and a lot of it makes sense.
Players are identified by their jersey number. We don’t remember faces. We recall numbers, fondly or otherwise.
Kids grew up dreaming about being the next Roger Staubach, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw or Ken Stabler, or in recent years Tom Brady – each a famed No. 12.
The franchise you might assume retires numbers is the Oakland Raiders. They do not. How can this be?
It’s difficult to fathom a franchise that embraces its history, legacy and brand more than the Raiders, particularly when owner Al Davis was in charge, which adds to the curiosity as to why the Raiders do not retire digits.
When Golden State Warriors chairman and CEO Joe Lacob announced last week that no other franchise player would wear No. 35, that got me to thinking.
First of all, really? Kevin Durant sparkled in 35, yes, but he played just three seasons with Golden State. Shouldn’t retired numbers come from those who logged more than a few seasons with a particular franchise?
That also was not Durant’s first NBA jersey, nor will it be his last as he has agreed to a free-agent deal with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Raiders share their Oakland venue with the A’s, another franchise steeped in tradition. And the A’s retire numbers: Reggie Jackson’s 9, Rickey Henderson’s 24, Catfish Hunter’s 27, Rollie Fingers’ 34 and Dennis Eckersley’s 43.
Come on, Raiders, step up to the plate.
What better way to honor your past as the franchise moves forward – and out of state via relocation – than to get on a festive jersey retirement fun fest?
And more reasoning and logic: The NFL embarks on its 100th season this fall, and the Raiders their 60th. The timing would be ideal to send the franchise out by bringing in scores of retired greats to hoist their numbers, to allow fans one final peek at player greatness in a season-long goodbye in Oakland.
The only other NFL teams older than 25 years that do not retire numbers are the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas, though the Cowboys have taken numbers 8 (Troy Aikman), 12 (Staubach) and 22 (Emmitt Smith) out of circulation due to sheer popularity.
We reached out to someone who knew Davis well to help provide clarity. Amy Trask is the one-time Raiders CEO who was a right-hand person to Davis.
“I discussed this subject with Al numerous times over the course of my career,” Trask said. “One concern he repeatedly articulated was what I will describe as a sensitivity to not excluding or omitting any players.
“In other words, where do you stop? If you retire the numbers of players X and Y and Z, are you hurting players A and B and C? Where do you draw the line?”
She added, “In other words, the law of unintended consequences: by honoring some you are by definition omitting others, and he was very sensitive to that. That was the discussion we had for many years, and then the league adopted a rule prohibiting teams from retiring numbers, the ostensible reason for which was that teams could ‘run out of numbers.’ That rule was in place through the time I left the league (in 2013). I do not know whether it still is and whether exceptions are granted or whether teams simply ignore the rule.”
All told, NFL teams have retired 139 numbers. The Chicago Bears lead the way with 14.
Numbers have been retired as recently as 2016, including Bruce Smith’s No. 78 for the Buffalo Bills. So the rule, as absurd as it is, has been ignored.
Besides, since when did the Raiders conform to rules, regulations and policy?
Al Davis died in 2011. He lives on with the eternal flame at the Raiders venue.
We can take him off the hook in his unyielding loyalty on the matter of retired numbers in an effort to allow his greatest players to live on, too. The Raiders have 12 players who are in the Hall of Fame (with the bulk of their careers in silver and black). Davis and 1970s coach John Madden are also in the Hall.
Davis loved nothing more than to one-up the NFL, but if 14 is too many Raiders numbers to retire, how about a nice tidy total of seven, a number synonymous with the sport?
Here’s our suggestion, with extra emphasis on careers in Oakland and not Los Angeles:
00 – Jim Otto: An original Raider and as great of a center the sport has ever known.
12 – Ken Stabler: The ace-cool quarterback during the best era of the Raiders, in the 1970s.
16 – George Blanda: Defied age and conventional wisdom to became the NFL’s all-time career scorer.
24 – Willie Brown: A terrific cover corner from the 1960s and 70s and then a longtime assistant coach.
25 – Fred Biletnikoff: The hands, the routes, the Stickum, the results.
63 – Gene Upshaw: A pulling-guard terror for Oakland’s finest teams.
78 – Art Shell: As great of a left tackle as the game has ever experienced, and later the Raiders’ head coach (twice).