TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, caught up in the controversy over Arizona voters' rejection of a state holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was played without incident yesterday after a local civil rights group staged a protest against the game.
Sun Devil Stadium was a near sellout for the game between Louisville and Alabama. Attendance was helped by the decision of a Phoenix-based airline, America West, to buy 12,000 tickets that had been returned by both schools.
Bowl officials, sensitive to the negative publicity that Arizona has received since the defeat of the King holiday issue in November, arranged for the halftime ceremony to include a tribute to the memory of King.
Players on both teams altered their uniforms in King's memory. Louisville players wore a jersey patch reading, "The Dream Lives On," as well as a helmet decal representing the university's cultural diversity.
Alabama players wore black armbands with "MLK" on them.
And the Louisville Cardinals conducted a 34-7 pounding of Alabama's Crimson Tide.
Outside the stadium gates before the game, a group of 11 demonstrators representing the Maricopa County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested the playing of the game.
Tempe police assigned one plainclothes officer to the demonstration, which was free of incident. The demonstrators stood silently holding placards, one of which said: "Alabama and Louisville, Hang Your Head in Shame."
The chief reason for the protest was the chapter's objection to not being consulted by either Louisville or Alabama before the schools' decisions to come to Tempe.
"We just wanted them to consider what they were doing before coming here," said the Rev. Oscar Tillman. "By coming, they are perpetrating a myth that everything is wonderful here. But there are very serious civil rights issues in Arizona."
The state's voters turned down proposals that would have made King's birthday a paid holiday for state workers, although many municipalities, including Tempe and Phoenix, observe the holiday.
After the vote on Nov. 6, Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner of the National Football League, said he would recommend that the league's owners vote against awarding the 1993 Super Bowl to Tempe; Notre Dame was reported to have turned down an invitation, and Virginia did turn down an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl, and bowl officials considered moving the game to San Diego.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association blocked the move, because San Diego is host to the Holiday Bowl.
Yesterday, several people attending the game expressed the wish that, in the case of the Fiesta Bowl, politics and sports had been kept separate.
"Sports and the King holiday should have never been connected," said the Rev. Warren Stewart, a Phoenix minister who was gathering signatures for a petition to put an unpaid King holiday on the ballot.
Fans who attended the game expressed frustration with the controversy, saying that it detracted from the purpose of the bowl.
"It's unfair to the players to have the whole game mixed up in this other stuff," said Butch Roberts, a contractor from Birmingham, Ala. "The issue had nothing to do with football."
Chuck Mastin, an accountant from Louisville, said: "I'm a Cardinals fan. We had agreat year, and this is supposed to be the reward. Sports and politics don't mix."
Wayne Davis, a former linebacker for Alabama and the Phoenix Cardinals who now lives in Chandler and who says he voted for the King holiday, had no objection to his alma mater coming to the Fiesta Bowl. "I don't think politics should be involved with sports on any level," Davis said.