In renouncing Phoenix, NFL pot calls kettle black


November 09, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

The news is out: The National Football League ain't gonna play Sun City. Phoenix has apparently lost the 1993 Super Bowl because Arizona voters rejected a proposal to join 47 states and the national government in honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday.

On the face of it, the NFL's decision, which must be approved by at least 21 owners, is a wonderful example of racial sensitivity and compelling evidence that, in the post-Reagan era, big business can have a conscience and a moral center. Then you remember which NFL we're talking about and you wonder what else might be at work.

Let's take a quick walk through the league's record on race. In its long and glorious, pre-game, post-game and halftime-reported history, the NFL has had one black head coach. One. And that's the high point. There have been no black general managers and, of course, no black owners.

Who are these guys to dictate to anyone?

It seems obvious that the NFL is motivated by a desire to avoid revisiting Shoal Creek, site of the PGA championship where the game of golf was made to effect a racial conscience. Can you imagine how the NFL image-makers -- Pete Rozelle is gone but hardly forgotten -- would react if their Super Bowl were suddenly being picketed before God and man and all those TV sponsors? What if -- and one shudders just to think of the possibility -- some of those TV sponsors threatened to pull their ads? Try to imagine life without Bud Bowl III.

No one has forgotten the Miami Super Bowl (January 1989) and the race riots and the perception that the NFL, which canceled not a single party even as sections of the city were burning, was guilty of a let-them-eat-cake (unless there's any caviar available) mentality. There was perhaps no moment in the '80s when the zTC division between rich and poor was so glaringly visited.

If the NFL fails to move the game from Phoenix, it's very likely that there will be picketing. Certainly, there will be a Super Bowl ,, week of controversy. For the NFL, this move looks like a great business decision, except you wonder how the NFL got into this predicament in the first place.

That's easy. The league simply blundered its way.

Last March, when Phoenix was awarded the game, city officials assured the NFL that Arizona would pass the King holiday. Once upon a time, Arizona had a King holiday on the books, but Evan Mecham, the since-deposed governor but still an all-but-certified crazy, rescinded the law. It was his supporters who led the fight against renewing the holiday in Tuesday's vote.

Why did the NFL rush into this decision? Why didn't the league tell Phoenix to come back with a King holiday and then talk about the Super Bowl? Instead, Phoenix got the Super Bowl on a what-if basis. That would be like awarding an expansion franchise to a city that hadn't voted yet on whether to build a stadium. What happens when the vote goes down? Now, we know.

We also know now that there was no rush, since the NFL apparently isn't going to pick a new location until next March when the owners have their annual meeting. Incidentally, the league is not planning to move its March 1992 meetings from Phoenix because, well, no one will notice they're there.

By having to move the game, the NFL has goofed on several counts. First of all, it invites everyone to re-examine the league's racial record. The NFL has no King holiday, but every day is Art Shell Day. When Shell, who is black, was named Raiders coach, the league figured it was able to rest on its laurel, until now. That wasn't the only mistake. The NFL gave the game to Phoenix only as a favor to owner Bill Bidwill, whose franchise is sinking into the desert sand and who now will probably get most of the blame for losing the game. In an era when almost all major-league franchises thrive, Bidwill has managed to get into trouble in two cities.

Ironically, the NFL may well have cost the King supporters a victory. Many Arizonans, who like to think of themselves as rugged individualists and cowboy-booted preservers of the Wild West, must have perceived the NFL's demands as simple blackmail. Since the King supporters, who were leading in all of the polls, lost by 15,000 votes out of a million, it's probably safe to say that resentment proved to be the difference.

The vote against King was obviously the wrong decision, morally insupportable, and not very smart either. Losing the Super Bowl will cost Phoenix somewhere between $100 million and $200 million, and other conventions may decide to follow the NFL's lead. In fact, there are already rumblings that Notre Dame, Virginia and Miami -- three possible candidates to play in the coming Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix -- are reconsidering their options.

There is a principle here, of course. The King holiday is an important symbol for everyone, black and white, who believes in civil rights. Rejecting it is a highly visible mark against the people of Arizona, whose vote likely has forced the NFL to withdraw the game. And, in the end, it probably doesn't matter if the league made the right decision for the wrong reasons.

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