Tagliabue wavers on a flagrant foul

January 29, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- It's a Confederate flag, OK? A Confederate flag! True, the old Civil War battle emblem comprises only two-thirds of the Georgia state flag. But 130 years after the Civil War -- and two years before the Atlanta Olympics -- that symbol must go.

Incredibly, the South will rise again tomorrow on two flagpoles outside the Georgia Dome, apparently with the blessing of the NFL. Never mind that 28 of the 44 Super Bowl starters are black. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue won't get involved.

Four years ago, the NFL yanked the Super Bowl out of Arizona when the state rejected the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The bTC threat of outside interference fueled voter resentment, and now Tagliabue is afraid that pressure from the league will result in a similar backlash.

Politically, he might be right. Morally, he's dead wrong. How can the NFL permit its showcase event to be marred by a racist symbol without raising an objection? How can Tagliabue stand before the national media without offering a personal condemnation?

"I won't do that," Tagliabue said yesterday at his annual Super Bowl news conference, "because most of the people I've spoken to, including civil rights leaders, said it wouldn't serve any purpose."

Tagliabue said Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and even civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson advised him against inflaming controversy. Miller tried to get the flag changed last year, but backed down when confronted by heated opposition.

The issue is nothing short of explosive in Georgia -- polls last year showed a majority of residents favor retaining the flag. Tagliabue actually thinks he's doing the right thing, by avoiding a stand that might be counterproductive.

"It's not our flag. It's Georgia's flag," he said. "It was adopted by the state legislature. It's a political issue. We're not a political advocacy group. We're a football league."

The same football league that shamed Arizona into finally adopting the King holiday last November so that the state could be the host of the 1996 Super Bowl. Tagliabue shouldn't fear history repeating itself. Quite the contrary -- he should try to ensure that it does.

Tagliabue said the NFL tried to stay out of the Arizona debate, but the threat of moving the game was implicit, and CBS speculated on the possibility two days before the initial vote. The state reacted, the holiday was defeated, and the next morning, the 1993 Super Bowl was moved to Pasadena, Calif.

The eventual adoption of the holiday in Arizona is testament to the power of the NFL.

Obviously, it's too late for the league to persuade Georgia to change its flag. But Tagliabue won't even give his opinion when, at the very least, he should demonstrate moral authority and insist the banner not be flown.

This is the chicken's way out. Baseball might be a rudderless ship, but how much better is the NFL under Tagliabue? The same rules never applied twice in the expansion process, and now Tagliabue is being just as inconsistent on an issue that should have died with the Civil War.

Supporters of the flag claim it reflects Georgia's Southern heritage, as if that's something to be proud of.

In truth, the story behind the flag is even uglier than one might suspect. When the state legislature voted to add the Confederate symbol in 1956, it was an act of defiance against court-ordered desegregation.

If Atlanta wants its Olympics to be a celebration of the New South, it had better start purging remnants of the old. The mayor and governor disapprove of the flag, but Campbell asked reporters Wednesday "not to be distracted by symbols." That would be fine, if the symbols weren't so powerful.

It's bad enough that the Confederate battle emblem will be displayed at America's most popular sporting event.

It's even worse that it might fly in '96, offending not just African-American athletes, but entire African nations. Why not just play "Dixie" instead of the Olympic anthem?

Georgia civil-rights activists, led by state Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III, plan a protest march on the Georgia Dome at noon tomorrow. Abernathy is the son of Martin Luther King Jr.'s chief lieutenant, the inheritor of a legacy. But evidently, he's not one of Tagliabue's advisers.

A worldwide audience, an international city, a national embarrassment. Denounce the flag, commissioner. Ditch it, Georgia. The rednecks can howl all they want. It's a Confederate flag, OK? Last time we checked, the Civil War was over.

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