SPORTS, on exceptional occasions, transcends fun and games. What happens in the stadium or the arena isn't all that important. To awaken the social conscience of a nation is more meaningful, which is what happened last summer at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Ala., and now at the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix.
Blacks and other minorities have been abused too long. Athletics and show business have opened doors of opportunity, granting an equality to the performers but only tacit acceptance in too many instances for the masses.
The National Football League awarded Phoenix the 1993 Super Bowl, worth untold millions to the economy of any community, with the proviso the Arizona voters approve a state holiday for the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The bill failed so commissioner Paul Tagliabue abrogated the arrangement on the basis that terms of the proposal were not fulfilled.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, the NFL had a "gentleman's agreement" that blacks wouldn't be signed to contracts. But then came Kenny Washington and Willie Strode of the 1946 Los Angeles Rams. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns added two players destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, namely Marion Motley, the greatest of all fullbacks, and guard Bill Willis.
Things have changed. Blacks are no longer a minority in the NFL. They are, in fact, the majority, comprising 56 percent of the work force. That's why Tagliabue denied Phoenix the chance to host the Super Bowl three years hence. To have gone ahead would have been turning the other cheek and, to his credit, the commissioner refused.
What next came into focus was the Fiesta Bowl, a major college postseason attraction, that hoped to have the University of Virginia as one of its participants. But Virginia bowed out and announced a preference for the Sugar Bowl. There was then talk of moving the Fiesta game to another city.
But the promoters made revised plans and are now going to be hosting two southern universities, with each school collecting $2.5 million. Louisville has agreed to play any one of four Southeastern Conference members -- depending upon how Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and, possibly, Mississippi finish the season. Before such arrangements could be even tentatively planned, the King controversy had to be resolved.
What evolved was an offer to stage a huge ceremony that would honor Dr. King at halftime and provide a $100,000 scholarship fund for minority students. Don Meyers, chairman of the Fiesta Bowl, insisted pressure tactics were not involved.
He explained the procedure gives "a unique opportunity to be a very positive experience, an opportunity to stand up for civil rights." So without Shoal Creek admitting black members, after the firestorm at last summer's PGA Championship, which in turn has forced other country clubs to do the same, major golf events would have continued to be held at all-white enclaves.
But that has ended. Now the NFL, via the stand of Tagliabue, has brought more attention to a different kind of a racial issue. Arizona was thrown for a loss in being forced to forfeit rights to the Super Bowl, followed by a threat of having the Fiesta Bowl taken elsewhere.
This possibility was headed off when the Fiesta committee decided to have a ceremony to show the watching world it had respect for King, plus the minority scholarship it will award. Arizona also will continue to try something similar to save the Super Bowl, with the hope it can get Tagliabue to reverse his ruling.
There are times when sports, as it has in the past, becomes a force for immense good. Gone are the days when a black man has to ride in the back of the bus or drink from a different water fountain or walk on the other side of the street.
Such pioneers as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Claude "Buddy" Young and Jesse Owens would be pleased to know their skirmish wasn't in vain and there are men of profound decency, black and white, willing to be ever-vigilant to defend and further the cause of human justice -- on and off the field of play.