Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series acquainting fans with the Raiders’ illustrious 60-year history as the team moves to Las Vegas for the 2020 season.
In the Aug. 1, 1977, edition of Sports Illustrated, the one with kayakers on the cover — no, there wasn’t a pandemic at the time — the lead story contained sinister phrasing such as “wanton violence,” “gang warfare,” “criminal acts,” “happiness at pain” and “love of blood” in its opening paragraph.
Had it not been summertime, you would have sworn it was about the Philadelphia Flyers, the Broad Street Bullies, and not the opening gambit to William Oscar Johnson’s story about a 10-day trial in which the Raiders’ George Atkinson sued Steelers coach Chuck Noll for slander.
The $2 million dispute stemmed from Atkinson’s vicious blow away from the play late in the first half of the 1976 season opener that rendered unsuspecting Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann ineffective for the second half with a concussion.
Noll referred to Atkinson as “a criminal element” that should be banished from the NFL. Atkinson pressed charges. The trial was so outrageous that John Grisham couldn’t have dreamed it up.
Five things worth noting about it:
OTD 1976: Ken Stabler's #Raiders score 17 points in the final 2:56 to nip the defending-SB champ Steelers, 31-28, in the season opener at Oakland.
This is the infamous "criminal element" game (per Steelers' HC Chuck Noll), referencing George Atkinson's vicious blow to Lynn Swann pic.twitter.com/6Bolc0IlzV
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 12, 2019
1. Each side had as many attorneys as starting linebackers (three). Leading the Steelers’ defense was James Martin MacInnis, who had been the Hearst family’s first choice to defend Patty after she changed her name to Tania and joined the Symbionese Liberation Army. The Raiders countered with Willie Brown — not the Hall of Fame defensive back but the flamboyant barrister who suggested that by the time he was finished making his case “the question of pro football as we know it continuing to be played may very well be in doubt.”
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) January 4, 2020
2. A quote from one of the lawyers after lights were dimmed for another series of graphic instant replays: “I’m not gonna look at one more of those things unless it’s got some majorettes in it.”
One of the Classic shots of the 70’s. George Atkinson totally into Lynn Swann’s head again. Gave him 2 concussions during the rivalry. pic.twitter.com/BciSVg7mHQ
— steve miller (@wvthunder1422) October 1, 2018
3. Move over Atticus Finch: Atkinson attorney Daniel S. Mason grilled Noll to the point that the Steelers’ coach had to admit that Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Glen Edwards — his own players — belonged in the same category of violent players as Atkinson and the Raiders’ Jack Tatum.
If you need some perspective on how tough the 70s Steelers defense was, this is how the freaking cornerbacks tackled. pic.twitter.com/7ckOOBwLo3
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 9, 2019
4. Raiders owner Al Davis testified on Atkinson’s behalf wearing a silver tie and black suit.
Wardrobe from the late Al Davis collection. pic.twitter.com/0UMiZhUczV
— spintellectual (@spintellectual) October 4, 2017
5. After four hours of further review, this is what the jury decided: No slander. No malice. No damages for Atkinson. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle fined him $1,500 for being a dirty player. Noll got docked $1,000 for criticizing another team’s player. And two guys shooting rapids in a kayak got their picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.