By: Keith Dobkowski, Sports and Legal Issues Writer
January 29, 2004
I sat down with Oakland City Attorney John Russo to discuss sports in the East Bay. Our discussion covered a wide range of topics from the lawsuits between the city and Raiders, Russo's possible candidacy for Mayor to Russo's thoughts on paying college athletes.
KD: Why did you choose law?
RUSSO: Oh God, why did I choose law? I've practicing for 18 years; well it will be 19 years this year. I started as a legal aid attorney in St. Louis.
KD: Why did you want to be a lawyer?
RUSSO: I've been told since I was a kid that I should be a lawyer. I wanted to help people and started out as a legal aid attorney in St. Louis and went from there.
KD: How do you go from St. Louis to Oakland?
RUSSO: I got married and moved here in 1987 and worked in private practice for several years.
KD: What sort of private practice?
RUSSO: All kinds of stuff. Plaintiff's side work. Then defense. I did professional malpractice defense. And insurance company defense. Real basic corporate defense work. Honed my skills, did trial work, arbitrations, all kinds of litigation work at that time. Had my own firm for a couple years and in 1990 I ran for city counsel here in Oakland. I lost the first time I ran. That is not unusual. I thought I would probably not win the first time. I ran again four years later and then I was on the city council for just under six years. And when that was done, I went ahead and decided it was time to try to be city attorney.
KD: And that was in 2000?
RUSSO: That was in 2000, I got elected City Attorney. And have been here ever since.
KD: In the Sunday Chronicle (January 11, 2004) it said that you would run to be the next mayor of Oakland?
RUSSO: Absolutely Not! I don't know why they keep saying that. I am not running for Mayor of Oakland. And I am not going to change my mind. That is not like me. I'm not running today and ask me again later. I am not running for mayor in 2006. That is not going to happen. I am not taking that back. I am not waiting to see what an exploratory committee will see. I am not running for mayor in 2006. Consider that a Sherman. Not Running, Not running, not running and I am not going to change my mind.
KD: How long can you be city attorney for?
RUSSO: There are no term limits on city attorney. Without saying never, it is probably 97 or 98% that this next term will be last term. I am getting reelected in March cause I am running unopposed so this next will be my last term. Two terms is enough.
KD: What is your plan once you complete your next term?
RUSSO: I have no idea. In Politics, five months is a lifetime, let alone five years. I just don't know. I will look at the legislature here in 2006; I will look at the assembly seat then. It is possible that I would look at the Senate in 2008. It is possible that I would do neither and go back to my private practice in January 2009.
KD: What college and law school did you attend?
RUSSO: I graduated from Yale College in 1982. I graduated New York University, School of Law in 1985.
KD: Any desire to become a professor?
RUSSO: No, but thanks for asking. I guess it is possible that I would want to teach. But as a fulltime teacher, a tenure track, never. I did some teaching earlier in my career in the St. Louis Community College teaching Paralegals. It is unlikely that I would teach anytime soon.
KD: What gave you the motivation and desire to enter public office?
RUSSO: I have been interested in government and public service since I was a little kid. Even in grade school I was interested in government. I started reading the papers when I was six or seven years old. My family, pretty much every night, watched the news together. Then my father would question us and push us debate wise on different issues. I was walking door to door for candidates when I was 12. My dad and mom were volunteers on campaigns. They were not big shots. They helped people in the community. My dad could read and write English and most of the people from his hometown in Italy couldn't, so he would help them. Kids follow what they see, not what their parents tell them, but what they see their parents do. My parents were participants in the larger community. They were interested in politics and participated in politics. It would be very hard not to be part of the deal growing up in a family like that.
KD: What profession did you parents participate in?
RUSSO: My mom was a dressmaker and my dad was construction worker.
KD: Law school is becoming more and more for the richer and richer?
RUSSO: There is no doubt; it is for the richer and richer. I was lucky; I had a national merit scholarship that's how I got to Yale. I lucked out. Things worked out well for me. The same kid as me comes along today and I am not sure the same opportunities present themselves.
KD: We run a sports business website and wanted to ask questions on the state of sports in the Oakland area. Ranging from the Raiders trial to your fanship to where you believe we are headed in the local area with each of the three teams (Raiders, Warriors and Athletics). Lets look at it on a team-by-team basis.
KD: Lets start with the Raiders because you seem to have the greatest connection with the Raiders.
KD: Are you a fan of the Raiders?
RUSSO: Used to be. I still root for then. But it is very difficult to root for an organization that I am constantly in an adversarial posture with. An organization that doesn't allow its players to come to a party to celebrate its success that year, as happened last year. It is a real slap in the face. That kind of stuff bothers me a lot more than the lawsuit business. I can live with the idea that Lawsuits are business. People are going to press their advantages and I'm actually okay with that. But stiffing the fans at the celebration after last years Super Bowl was worse than rude. There is no reason to make the fans suffer because the Raiders do not have a good relationship with the politicians. I don't have a good relationship with a lot of those politicians, so I understand. But as a fan I don't understand why the Raiders would stiff and break the hearts of their fans. I don't care for that; so it is hard to root for them when treat their fans so poorly.
I actually still root for the New York Giants. So both my teams took big falls this year.
KD: You are moving forward, getting a new coach in New York and a New Coach here?
RUSSO: I like Coughlin a lot.
KD: Should the Raiders draft a quarterback?
KD: Should they draft Larry Fitzgerald?
RUSSO: Yeah. The Raiders should probably draft a wide receiver. They clearly need more wide receivers. If it is not this year, it is the year after. Rice and Brown can only play for so long. It is a great tandem, but it's an old tandem.
KD: Do you believe that Tim Brown has played his last game in a Raiders Uniform?
RUSSO: I have no idea whether that is true or not, I hope it is not.
KD: In the naming rights case concerning the Raiders Stadium, can you go into the details of the case and UMAX?
RUSSO: That precedes my being city attorney. I can tell you what I know. The government entities were in the process of the doing the naming rights with UMAX and we needed the sign off and cooperation of the Raiders. And at some time a letter got sent by the Raiders to UMAX stating that they were not going to cooperate in this UMAX deal and UMAX by the way you are being hoodwinked because we, the Raiders, may not be here [in Oakland]. Our lease may not be good and we may not be here for the length of the naming rights deal. And it was that letter that prompted the lawsuit. Such as it was I do not take any responsibility because I was not the city attorney. I did not have any calls to make on it. The lawsuit was not successful. However, on the other hand the implicit threat that the Raiders may duck out of their lease was litigated in that lawsuit and the court said and the Raiders had no rights to break their lease.
KD: (The contract between the city of Oakland and the Raiders contained a phrase stating that if the Raiders thought the name of the stadium would cause "reasonable embarrassment" to the Raiders, the Raiders could decline the name.) Did the lawsuit turn on the language of the "reasonable embarrassment" as stated in the contract with the city of Oakland?
RUSSO: I do not know that answer to that, sorry.
KD: Do you think the Raiders would be better served under new Management (Raiders' Owner Al Davis pictured below)?
RUSSO: I'll leave that to the Raiders' shareholders and to the owners. I do not know the answer to that. I do think that the appearance of the last month has been one of chaos. Again maybe it isn't.
KD: Let's continue with the two other sports organizations in the East Bay. Lets move right to the Warriors.
RUSSO: The Warriors made some good moves this year. It's troubling after they lost a tough game last night (the Warriors lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in double overtime 115-113). Troy Murphy gets injured again. I really like the deals they made this year. I like offloading Antawn Jamison and his contract. I didn't think they could sign Gilbert Arenas. If you can't sign Arenas and you lose Jamison to pick up a top quality point guard like Nick Van Exel, I like that deal a lot. I know that a lot of fans did not like the deal because of Jamison's scoring line (22.2 points per game during the 2002/03 season). You also have to look at what the guy playing opposite Jamison is putting up every night. I was never impressed with Jamison's D. He is a very exciting player, but I am from the East Coast and I like players who play defense. I am a Knicks' fan, so I want defense. I didn't think Jamison played really good defense. I was sorry to see Arenas go, but I understood that the Warriors couldn't keep Arenas and Richardson and Murphy. And Arenas came up first. If they had just lost Arenas that would have been bad and if they had just lost Jamison and brought in Van Exel, that would have been bad. But I think the combination was right. I think it is a better team than it was last year. Now they are having some rough patches. When nine or ten guys out of twelve have never played together before, that is bound to happen. But I think they should stick with this group for a couple of years. I like this group.
KD: What is your thought of Warriors owner Chris Cohan (pictured below with Mike Dunleavy)?
RUSSO: Chris Cohan is a guy who is somewhat misunderstood. Cohan has had some really bad breaks. He has shown a willingness to spend money on the team. This is not the problem you see with the A's where it is a question as to whether they have the commitment financially to make the team happen. It is kind of the opposite. He has put the money down but hasn't gotten the results. People can speculate as to what happened with [P.J.] Carlesimo or what happened before that with [David] Twardzik. When Twardzik was running the show as G.M. and [Rick] Adelman as the coach and what happened there. There has certainly been a lot of turnover in the front office but not for the last couple of years. I think that Chris Cohan really wants to put a winning team on the floor and I had a very good experience dealing with Chris Cohan in clearing the decks of all the outstanding litigation that existed between the Warriors and the City. When I came into city attorney there were eight outstanding disputes between the Warriors and city and now there are none. We cleared the decks. I think Chris is in good faith and wants a good relationship with the city and county. He wants a good relationship with the fans. And he wants to put a championship caliber team on the court. He is spending money to do it, so power to him. He has had some really bad breaks. It is not every day that your best player tries to choke the life out of the coach. That really set the franchise back a long way and in lots of ways. I like Chris. I know that some people have some problems with him. He has been involved in different disputes, but I have found him to be a good guy.
KD: The papers have placed Cohan and Davis in a similar pairing as far as being so litigious.
RUSSO: No not at all. Not for us.
KD: Not for you?
RUSSO: Not as far as the relationship with us. I believe we have a much better relationship with Cohan right now than we do with the Raiders. No question.
KD: To switch to the A's the biggest concern for local fans is a new ballpark. And obviously with just looking across the bay at what Pac Bell Park has done and that the San Francisco Giants even with cutting payroll this year still pay out twice as much for player salaries than that of the Oakland A's. What are the chances of a new ballpark being built in Oakland? (Pictured below is one of the proposed plans for a new ballpark in downtown Oakland).
RUSSO: In Oakland, none.
RUSSO: Zero. As long as Jerry Brown is the mayor of Oakland we are not building a new ballpark. He has made that clear. You can talk to the mayor about that.
KD: Why is Mayor Brown so hesitant in building a ballpark?
RUSSO: [Mayor Brown] thinks professional sports aren't worth the while.
KD: Is there any animosity that I am hearing?
RUSSO: No. I just think he's wrong. I think cities can often get ripped off in sports deals. But it is not necessarily the way is it has to be. It depends on where you put your ballpark. It depends on how you pay for it. It depends on what the split of revenues are, the split of investment. All of those things matter. To just cavalierly rule out professional sports as a method to redevelop the downtown or to count it out as something that could be an economic catalyst in some part of the city, I think is simplistic. You need to drill down to the second level of analysis and look at what the actual deal is that is being proposed. I think that a downtown ballpark in Oakland would have been a much better catalyst for growth and governmental revenues and tax revenues and jobs, more than anything else that is being proposed down there right now. However that is my position and not the position of the city government. And as the city attorney, whatever the city council and the mayor determine is the policy, that direction becomes my orders. That's their role, that's who the people put in charge position to do and whatever they decide to do, I will do my level best to make it happen. That's my job. Ethically that what I have to do and that's what I'm going to do. You asked for my personal opinion and I think that a downtown ballpark is a great idea.
KD: Do you think it was a mistake for Oakland to invest so much money in an ice skating rink when they could have invested in a ballpark?
RUSSO: I think it turned out to be a mistake only because the ice skating rink was supposed to be first in a series of investments that the city was going to make at that time. If we had known, those of us on the city council at the time, that it was just the ice rink and it was not going to be anything else, I don't think we would have voted for it. We saw it as part of creating a number of different entertainment and recreational destinations in the downtown area in creating a critical mass. But I don't think you can say it is wrong purely based on the thought that the money should have been used on a downtown ballpark. Because the amount of money spent on the ice rink really is minimal in comparison to a ballpark.
KD: Our website is directed towards a lot of students, both graduate and undergrad, and obviously sports management students, and I wanted to know whether or not you believe that the path of public office is a proper route to get involved in sports?
RUSSO: I don't know if it is the proper route, but it is one route to take. It tends to be adversarial to the teams. Certainly here in the East Bay it has been almost nothing but adversarial. So I'm not sure that if people want to get into sports ought to do it through government. I would say they should do it through sports. It is a huge business. There is agency, marketing, there are the actual franchises, arena management. There are so many ways one can enter the sports world and government may not be the most direct line. Having said that, I know a lot more about sports business now than I did seven or eight years ago when I became a city council member due to all the different events that have taken place here in Oakland between the city and the county on one side and the various sport franchises on the other forced me to learn more. But I don't think this is the most correct route.
KD: Seeing we have just about a minute left, I would like to ask a few quick personal questions mostly directly towards the students.
KD: How much time on a yearly basis do you spend in court arguing in front of a judge?
RUSSO: Next to none. I am basically the senior partner of this firm. If this were a civil firm, the city attorney's office would be the fifth biggest firm in the East Bay. So no, I'm the senior partner. I only go to court on major settlement conferences. When there's a deal to be done, I'm brought in. That is maybe three or four times since I have been city attorney on cases worth tens of millions of dollars. Other than the high value arbitration or high value civil rights case where there is a federal magistrate involved, I don't go to court anymore, others do that for me.
KD: In twenty years of practice, what is the highest judicial body you have practiced in front of?
RUSSO: For me the highest body I have practiced in front of is the trial court. Although I am going to be in front of, sometime this year I'll be in front of the California Supreme Court on the Predatory Lending Law that we passed here in Oakland and is being challenged by some financial interests. You have nailed something I see as a bit a gap here in my resume. I was thinking that I needed to get in front of the Supreme Court. And this is a case that is going in front of the Supreme Court. This is a case that I care about a lot and know pretty well. I will probably be one of the people arguing the case.
KD: After twenty years of practicing law, are you nervous to argue in front of the Supreme Court?
RUSSO: It is going to be a thrill. Part of the reason I want to do this is for the fun. Going up the chain, it is usually appellate attorneys who do it. I was a litigator. So most of my work was law and motion work, in courtrooms, trials, arbitrations and depositions, probably did 400 or 500 depositions in my career, deposition man. The nuts and bolts. The gritty foundation of lawsuits is what I did. It helps now for when my lawyers come in and tell me about where they are, I really can get into the guts of the case with them if I want to. And that is to bring some value to bear. Being an appellate attorney is a completely different animal than being a trial attorney. They rarely cross over.
KD: I ate at Max's Opera Cafe the other day and wanted to know if you ever eat your sandwich (Max's offers the John RUSSO City Attorney Sandwich as part of their menu)?
RUSSO: No, I don't order my own sandwich. I usually order something that's meat and salad. Nothing with bread or potatoes, kind of a modified Atkins.
KD: Looked down while ordering lunch and saw your name in front of a sandwich.
RUSSO: Yeah, it's pretty funny.
KD: Are you excited about Stephon Marbury joining the Knicks?
RUSSO: Yes, very excited about Marbury joining the Knicks. I am more excited with Isiah [Thomas] becoming the chief guy over there instead of [Scott] Layden. It has been four and a half years lost for that franchise. At that time we have Sprewell and Houston and we are going to offload Patrick Ewing. Query: Why would you want to offload Patrick Ewing even though he wasn't what he was? Fine. Okay, so you offload Patrick Ewing, so what do we need, oh I guess we need another swingman. So lets bring in Glen Rice. We don't have enough room for Houston and Sprewell, so lets bring in Rice. Why? And then they offload Rice and pick up Shandon Anderson, and that's another swingman. What is it with the swingman business here? For a while it felt like Don Nelson was running the franchise. Everybody was a tweener.
KD: That's the Warriors. Everyone is a tweener for the past four years.
RUSSO: Yeah, everyone's a tweener. I don't understand what the theory was, what the Knicks were trying to achieve. I am still not sure what they are trying to achieve. But lets face it, to go from Howard Eisley and Charlie Ward to Marbury and Penny Hardaway is a dramatic upgrade in the backcourt. Yeah, Mcdyess if healthy is a good player. Is he ever going to be healthy again? What did you lose for Mcdyess, you lost Camby, same problem so nothing lost there. Maybe they will be in a position if they can upgrade their frontcourt a little more. They don't have a championship frontcourt right now. They are one or two pieces away from being a really good team, maybe one piece away. That's a big change. I like the idea of trading a Ward and Eisley for Marbury much better than trading Sprewell for freaking Keith Van Horn. It's like Keith Van Horn has all over his face its "I'm the second coming of Danny Ferry. I am never going to be better than Danny Ferry as a pro." Why you would want to get Keith Van Horn, I can't understand for the life of me.
KD: For the past few months I have been working on a research paper looking into the links between crime in the NBA and underclassmen entering the NBA. (At this point, I handed RUSSO a copy of Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant's and Jason Kidd's mug shots from their various arrests. Iverson and Bryant are pictured below). As far as rates go, American born underclassmen drafted in the first round get arrested at nearly a 50% rate, as opposed college graduates who are arrested at approximately 12% rate. Do you think that the NBA should prohibit underclassmen from entering the NBA?
RUSSO: Yes, absolutely.
KD: In a job search no one would hire me without a Bachelor's degree, should it be same in professional sports?
RUSSO: It is not because it is better for professional sports. Professional sports has become such a huge enterprise that I believe we have bastardized the higher education system, in the service of being farm teams for these professional leagues, specifically the NFL and NBA. I think it should be very simple. You don't have to finish four years; you need to have a degree. If you don't have a degree, you are not playing in the NFL. If you don't have a degree, you are not playing in the NBA. Not to protect the NFL or the NBA or their reputations. Hell with them, they're businesses and they'e going to do what they need to do. It is there to protect the higher education system. Cause a lot of resources are being devoted to sports in higher education. If those resources are to work, to really redeem the promise that big time college sports bring money and attention to higher education and that is good for higher education, great -- then lets protect higher education sports by making it that the players who are there are there for several years. Lets protect higher educations investment in their players and call it what it is, it is an investment in the players. Lets pay the players.
KD: So you would support a law that would pay college athletes?
RUSSO: I think it is clear that the institutions are making a boatload of money off these kids. And to say that "oh my god, he accepted a Chevy Cavalier," is hypocrisy. Just pay them. You pay the guys who clean the dishes in the cafeteria. These are the guys who put the fannies in the seats. Just pay them something.
KD: Would you support college athletes getting a percentage of their uniform sales?
RUSSO: I have no clue how you would do it. I just think they should get paid something reasonable. It doesn't have to be market, just something reasonable. They should be given every opportunity, both incentives and disincentives to get their degrees. That way the younger kids coming up in junior high and high school know that there is no way to get to the NBA without getting a bachelors degree. So I've got to start focusing on getting good grades in high school so I can get into school and get the bachelor's degree. Then you police the hell out of it to make sure that they don't degrade the value of the bachelor's degree.
KD: Does that shut off European Players from coming over here?
RUSSO: No. They have to get a bachelor's degree or the equivalent of. This is not for the NBA. It is for all the kids who have these dreams that the odds are against them. They should be able to pursue those dreams. But they shouldn't be at 12 or 13 years old making decisions based upon some one in a million shot that forces them to spend their time in such a way that 999,999 outcomes damages their dreams.
I enjoyed meeting John RUSSO and found him to be a very engaging person who truly cares about the city of Oakland. In his eyes, in his demeanor and in his words, it is clear that RUSSO loves this city unconditionally and will do whatever is in his power to help the city of Oakland. I have often heard politicians and public official make claims of their love for city, state and country. Yet often, these very politicians lean heavy on the quotes and light on the sentiment. For RUSSO, his sentiment is honest and heartfelt and I believe that the city of Oakland will remain in good hands so long as RUSSO is a part of it.
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