Monday, NFL owners voted 31–1 to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas, and, as a result, Oakland’s infamous fan section will soon see the last of its beloved Silver and Black. (Yes, some approximation of the Black Hole will surely slither off into the desert along with Mark Davis, but it won’t be the same.) Here, in loving memory, the author of the forthcoming book The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport examines how the Black Hole came to earn its ruthless reputation and why no NFL fan base is likely to ever recreate its in-stadium environment.
The Black Hole. For more than 20 years, the name alone has conjured images of some of the most visually terrifying fans in football — an army of chain rattlers, zombie clowns, and Skeletor types whose only mission is to terrorize opposing teams in service of the Raid-ahs. Visiting players quickly learned to steer clear of the south end zone at the Oakland Coliseum, where superfans go by names like Violator, Dr. Death, and GrimRaider, lest they receive a shower of batteries, beer, and chicken bones — and anything else that wasn’t bolted down. This iconic haven of hardcores has become such a staple of the modern NFL that it seems like the fan section has been around since the time of Vince Lombardi, or at least of John Madden. But when the Raiders moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, there was no such thing as the Black Hole, not yet.
The idea for such a fan section was born the year before, in 1994. That was when Rob Rivera, a founding member and president of the Black Hole, would get together every Sunday with a small group of friends and watch his beloved Raiders from a distance of nearly 400 miles, as the team finished out its term in L.A. Some weeks they would catch the early games, too. The Cleveland Browns made a big impression.
"This Dawg Pound thing," Rivera remembers thinking of Cleveland’s famous fan section, which would hurl dog biscuits at the field and smuggle full kegs into the stands (inside a doghouse), "that is fucking phenomenal, man. And our fans are better than that! We are bigger. We are better. We are badder. So if the team ever comes back to Oakland, why don’t we do something like the Dawg Pound?"
For more than a year, Rivera held informal organizational meetings in which the group debated everything from a name — the Black Hole beat out the Rats’ Nest, among other candidates — to practical considerations, like "How can we draw attention to ourselves?" and "What can we do to piss off as many people as possible?" To those questions, the group decided: Get front-row seats and stand for the whole game. So for the 1996 season opener, Rivera and 19 brothers-in-arms showed up in the first row of Section 105. With them, they brought banners and hats and black T-shirts that read, in big block letters, "THE BLACK HOLE." (While some of the guys streaked their cheeks with black war paint, dressing up was not part of the group’s original mission; that evolved over time.) They also had a life-size dummy, meant to represent the opposing team’s quarterback, which they would abuse for four quarters.
"It wasn’t even kickoff yet," Rivera recalls. "Row 2 is like, ‘Hey, man. Sit the fuck down!’ Row 3, ‘Sit the fuck down!’ Throwing peanuts, water bottles, everything you can imagine. We did this for the first two games. We locked arms, and we said, ‘One sit down, we all got to sit down. One stand up, we all got to stand up.’ And we did it, man. We did it."
By Game 3, the self-selection began. Those who didn’t want a part of the Black Hole found seats elsewhere, while those who liked what they saw in the south end zone started to move in. "They said, ‘That is a good-ass atmosphere, that is a mosh pit.’ So the mosh pit started to grow, grow, grow."
The mosh pit became a powder keg. There was nothing the ferocious fans wouldn’t do to support their team. "When we played the Kansas City Chiefs, we grabbed Neil Smith’s face mask, ripped it off his head," says Rivera. "When we played Ray Lewis, we had him hooked up in a pig tie, and we are swinging him around — the dummy — and yelling, ‘Mur-der-er! Mur-der-er!’"
The dummy served as a signifier for the rest of the stadium. "We beat the fuck out of this dummy," says Rivera. "And when we threw it up, the whole stadium knew it was time to rock."
The Black Hole took its role seriously. They reveled in the wins and they were pissed off after the losses. Rivera remembers one game in 1997, a Monday-night matchup against Kansas City, when Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison with three seconds left in regulation to beat the Raiders by one. "We walk out to our tailgate party, and all the Raiders are leaving, heads down. It was a fucking funeral. But there was one car with [Oakland kick returner] Desmond Howard, and that motherfucker was jamming the beat in his SUV, having a good time."
This did not go over well with Raider Nation. "I will never forget it, dude," says Rivera. "Hundreds of motherfuckers started rocking his SUV, rocking it. And as they are rocking it, I remember hearing dunt dunt dunt dundundundunt! Bottles flying like bombs." Rivera says Howard’s car was practically sideways, about to topple, when cops finally intervened and kept his vehicle upright. But while his car may have been saved, his status among Raiders fans was forever damaged.
It’s worth pausing here to mention that, despite a slew of headline-grabbing incidents that include everything from in-stadium stabbings to parking-lot assaults to full-on city riots, Chris Sotiropulos, the Raiders director of stadium operations, insists that fan behavior at the Coliseum has been steadily improving over the past half-decade. He credits the adoption of a strict fan code of conduct, which the team doesn’t hesitate to enforce via arrest or ejection. "We are not really in the business of giving out warnings," he says. The worst Oakland troublemakers are rarely the regulars, according to Sotiropulos, and almost never those fans you see on TV wearing the face paint and the spiked shoulder pads. The serious problems come from those who attend a single game who are aware of the national perception of Raider Nation and decide to play their part in stirring up chaos, as if they were attending some kind of criminal fantasy camp. "They just come in, causing their damage, and then they might never show up to a game again," he says, adding that the team has a term for such interlopers: "one-game wonders."
It goes without saying that the Black Hole has not always been the most welcoming place for opposing fans. Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, authors of Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire, come up with "ten basic commandments" for Black Hole occupants, two of which are "Fuck with opposing fans until they request a police escort" and "Fuck with the police escort until they request a police escort."
According to Rivera, the Black Hole peaked in its first few seasons, which he calls the "craziest time period, and it will never be matched." He compares the fan section he created to a technology startup. "There’s always the start, and that is the heart and soul," he says. "I think just naturally, you start to lose some of what it is all about." That inevitable dilution has also been coupled with the ever-tightening screws of what the NFL allows at its games. "We can’t bring a dummy no more, we can’t sneak our band in the parking lot. No matter what we have done, the NFL has stopped it."
That isn’t to say the Black Hole is a G-rated space. Far from it. At a recent game against the Packers, for instance, I snuck into the south end zone and found an empty spot, as the Green Bay players and referees were pelted with steady (if not overly creative) insults from Raider Nation as soon as the game began.
"Fuck you, Aaron Rodgers!"
"Fuck you, Discount Double Check!"
"Fuck you, Green Bay! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s goooooo!"
Each time someone unleashed an F-bomb, a middle-aged father from New Jersey sitting to my right cringed. Eventually he leaned in to his boy and said, "What happens at a football game, stays at a football game. That is our bond, OK?" They bumped fists. "You hear things, you don’t repeat."
From behind us: "Fuck you, refs! Fuck you! Fuck yooooou!"
Father and son made silent eye contact, and nodded.
Meanwhile, to my left, a longtime fan who introduced himself as Krash squats below the height of the crowd. He debated whether to put on his parka, as it began to rain. "I’m just looking for a safe place to do my drugs," he said, smiling. "Don’t quote me on that."
When I asked Krash how the Black Hole compares with the old days, he didn’t hesitate. "It’s tamer," he said. "Definitely more family friendly, except for some cursing, but whatever." He ducked down to take a pull off his pipe, offering me a hit. I declined, explaining that I was slightly under the weather and didn’t want to contaminate him. He laughed. "Look around. We’re all contaminated."
The thing that most bothers Raiders fans like Rivera is not the cultural softening at home games but the tendency of sports fans across the country to characterize Raider Nation in general — and those in the Black Hole, specifically — as a band of lowlifes and criminals.
Part of the image problem, Rivera is aware, is that Raiders fans’ outlaw persona was forged in the 1970s "Badass" days, as author Peter Richmond puts it, and was then complicated during the team’s stay in L.A., when the defiant, truth-to-power rap group N.W.A adopted the Silver and Black as a kindred-spirit organization, while turning Raiders gear into street wear — in 1991, The New York Times dubbed this trend "Raiders chic" — which created an association between the team and gang activity. In the minds of many scared (often white) Americans, that was just another reason to stay away from the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Raiders played.
In Ice Cube’s documentary Straight Outta L.A., which revisits this time period, sportswriter Bill Plaschke describes the pregame tailgates as something "out of Mad Max," with fans "playing tackle football on the pavement" and "fistfights all the time." At a game in 1990, a Steelers fan was beaten unconscious in the stands, leading to felony charges against a Raiders fan as well as a one-game, stadium-wide beer ban. Raiders-related offenses weren’t limited to the stadium, either. In a display of true team loyalty, one fan — a man who became known as the Raider Bandit — committed 24 bank robberies to fund his football habit. Also not helping matters was condemned murderer and rapist Robert Charles Comer, who was executed in 2007. His last words? "Go Raiders!"
Rivera concedes that a rough element came with the team upon the Raiders’ return to Oakland. "Shit, if we lose, man, stuff is going down — you could feel that in the air the first few years," he says. "Then it turned into a positive, passionate, ferocious fan base, which was what we were about from the beginning." (In 2011, the Black Hole hired a PR man, hoping to shift attention toward the group’s charitable works, since community service is a core tenet of the Black Hole.)
Of course, none of that matters anymore — not the dummy, the chicken bones, nor the community efforts. Because when the Raiders suit up in 2018 (or thereabouts), it will be in front of a group of fans whose idea of charity amounts to sitting down at the penny slots, and the only Black Hole to speak of will be the $750 million stadium bill that lands at the feet of Nevada taxpayers like so many high-arcing beer bottles after a last-minute defeat, with a heavy dunt dunt dunt!
Hell, the new Raiders fans may even welcome Desmond Howard back into the fold.