A Morality Lesson from the Colleagues of Bob Irsay

November 27, 1990|By Pete Dexter | Pete Dexter,McClatchy News Service

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA — Sacramento, California. AND SO, gathering under the rallying cry of the 1960s -- if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem -- the National Football League has declared itself on the matter of social justice.

Yes, under the direction of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who is under the direction, of course, of 26 owners, the league has announced it's going to take the 1993 Super Bowl away from Phoenix if the state of Arizona doesn't do something about Election Day's narrow defeat of a measure in that state to honor Martin Luther King with a paid holiday on his birthday.

Beyond the question of why the NFL, which obviously holds strong feelings about the history of civil rights in this country -- when was it again that the league finally got a black head coach, 1989? -- would award the Super Bowl to Phoenix in the first place knowing Arizona didn't have a Martin Luther King holiday, you also have to wonder if this is just the start.

I mean, can the environment be far behind?

Is Mr. Tagliabue going to pull the Super Bowl out of California for turning its back on the Big Green?

Is he going to tell Miami it can't have the game any more because the NFL is anti-drugs?

If the state of Louisiana had elected David Duke to the House of Representatives, would the Superdome ever get another Super Bowl?

Obviously, a new political force is at work in America. It is wonderful to see its origins are men and women of such high character. I am referring, of course, to the owners.

Men like Robert Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, who tiptoed his franchise out of Baltimore in the dead of night.

And the late Joe Robbie of the Miami Dolphins. The years the Dolphins won the Super Bowl, Coach Don Shula had to pay various locker-room employees bonuses out of his pocket because Mr. Robbie was too cheap to give them a small piece of the bonus.

How long do you think it would take such a man to declare a paid holiday for Martin Luther King if it were coming out of his pocket?

Or Al Davis, who, as it happens, has the only black coach working in the NFL. What a great and ethical guy is Mr. Davis, constantly upgrading his sweetheart clauses and his stadium by playing Los Angeles and Oakland off against each other.

Or Victor Kiam, who said the female sportswriter was asking for trouble in the locker room. How can you speak of NFL owners without bringing up Victor Kiam?

These are the sort of people who made the decision about Phoenix -- Mr. Tagliabue, like the man he replaced, Pete Rozelle, works for the owners and entirely represents their interests -- and, without going over them personality by personality, let me just offer the opinion that you could not pick 26 human beings at random with fewer credentials to be setting things right in America.

Nevertheless, there it is.

Perhaps the idea grew out of this year's PGA tournament at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Alabama. That was where America discovered golf tournaments were being played at private clubs which did not allow minority members. The publicity resulted in Shoal Creek inducting its first black member; it also gave the Professional Golf Association a chance to explain what an equal-opportunity bunch of guys they were. And seeing how the PGA came out of that covered with glory, the NFL may have borrowed the idea.

From an owner's point of view, it was worth borrowing. Meaning it's easy and it's cheap. Especially cheap. It doesn't cost as much as a low draft pick, and it paints a picture of the NFL as an organization with heart and social conscience.

But it doesn't matter much if the NFL puts the Super Bowl in Phoenix or not. And the NFL's support of the two ballot measures in Arizona -- one of which would have replaced Columbus Day with Martin Luther King's birthday, and the other would have created a new paid holiday (where, you wonder, does the NFL stand on balanced state budgets?) -- doesn't change anything, particularly what the NFL is.

The owners do not become soldiers in the fight for civil rights by moving the Super Bowl. They have, after all, been sitting there in their super boxes, some of them since football was invented, without being noticeable forces for social change.

Now that it's safe, they'll play the occasional black quarterback, they'll hire a black coach. Where were they when doing something like that might have alienated fans?

Where were these warriors all those years before Art Shell became the first black head coach? Where is football's Branch Rickey?

The answer to that question is that there is none.

According to the polls, the people of Arizona probably would have passed a Martin Luther King holiday this year if the NFL hadn't sent them the message: Get a holiday for Martin Luther King or lose the Super Bowl.

Having been to a Super Bowl or two -- the drunks, the crowds, the mess, the traffic, the media, and almost invariably an unwatchable game -- I can only assume that the voters of Arizona were sending the NFL a message of their own.

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