The NFL as political organization and moral arbiter

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

November 25, 1990|By Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover

Washington The National Football League has never been considered a hotbed of liberal thought. Football coaches tend to be authoritarian figures whose politics run from the right to the far right.

The Washington Redskins once had a very respectable offensive guard who was always in hot water with the coaches because he publicly supported George S. McGovern for president. It was, they said, a "distraction" -- a complaint no one made when Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys endorsed various conservative candidates.

So it is a little bizarre to find the NFL playing the role of self-anointed defender of the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. But that is just what Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, is doing when he threatens to move the 1993 Super Bowl out of Phoenix if Arizona doesn't recognize a holiday honoring Dr. King.

There is ample precedent for the use of economic pressure to achieve political ends. The civil rights movement of which Martin King was the ultimate leader began with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. And boycotts against businesses that discriminated against blacks were a common and effective device all through the years of the movement.

But since when does professional football have a political agenda? It was understandable when the Democratic Party refused to hold its convention in a state that had not approved the Equal Rights Amendment. Support for ERA was an integral element of the party's platform; it was one of the things that separated Democrats from Republicans. Similarly, the Democrats could justify not holding their nominating convention in a state that failed to honor Dr. King because that would be a political statement from a political organization.

It might also be argued that the colleges whose football teams have been agonizing over whether to play in the Fiesta Bowl or the Copper Bowl, the two postseason games scheduled in Arizona, have a legitimate interest in the King holiday question because they are, after all, educational institutions with some presumed moral authority.

But the only agenda for pro football players is to beat the other guys into the dirt, run around waving their index fingers and shouting "We're No. 1," and then cashing a big check from the playoffs and the Super Bowl. It is a business. There is no social purpose in blocking and tackling.

The NFL threat also fails a test of elementary logic. If the principle involved here is so overriding, why not stop playing any NFL games at all in Arizona -- or anywhere else where the political climate is offensive? Or does the principle apply only when the amount of money involved is great enough? How about blacking out television transmission of the games to New Hampshire, another state without a King holiday?

Carried to its extreme, the rationale implicit in the NFL threat becomes even more ridiculous now that they have decided they are liberals after all. Can the Super Bowl be held in a state that has a right-to-work law on its books? Might that not offend players who belonged to the union? Or what about accepting sponsorship from corporations that do business with South Africa? Many NFL players are black.

The NFL is not only a duck out of water playing politics but remarkably inept about it.

Polling data in Arizona showed the King holiday referendum was ahead by a comfortable margin until the word leaked out two days before the Nov. 6 election about the threat to move the

Super Bowl. Unsurprisingly, Arizona voters saw this as economic blackmail -- the Super Bowl claims it produces $200 million for the host city -- and narrowly defeated the holiday.

But for the NFL, it was a chance for a cheap gesture. This is not a question of the Super Bowl not being played and the players and club owners failing to collect another huge check. If the game isn't played in Phoenix, there are a dozen other cities that would be happy to oblige.

Black Americans who participated in the civil rights movement, including economic boycotts, a generation ago did so often at considerable monetary cost to themselves and more often at great personal risk. Martin King and his followers put something on the line to achieve a purpose they considered transcendent.

The NFL is just playing a public relations game. Football players should stick to blocking and tackling. They are not in great demand as moral arbiters.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.

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