Looking back at the NFL moving the Super Bowl from Arizona due to Martin Luther King Jr. holiday


PHOENIX — When Vada Manager heard the news in April that Major League Baseball was moving its All-Star Game from Truist Park in Atlanta to Coors Field in Denver he was quickly taken back to 1990.

He was a young press secretary for Gov. Rose Mofford — the first and only Black gubernatorial press secretary in the state of Arizona — when the state voted down a measure to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday in 1990. That eventually led to the NFL moving Super Bowl XXVII, scheduled for 1993, out of Tempe, Arizona to Pasadena, California.

When he saw the breaking news alert on his phone about MLB’s decision to move Tuesday’s game (7:30 p.m. ET, Fox) because it believed a bill passed by the Georgia legislature would impose restrictions on voting rights for people of color, he couldn’t help but compare the two situations.

The NFL’s decision to move the Super Bowl is believed to be the first time a major sports league reacted to a highly politicized issue by relocating an event. It wasn’t the last, however. In 2016, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte because North Carolina passed legislation that limited and rescinded protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The law gained the most attention for a provision that required transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates. The NCAA followed the NBA’s lead shortly after by moving seven championships, including the men’s basketball tournament, out of the state.

On April 2, Major League Baseball became the latest sport to move an event based on politics when commissioner Rob Manfred made the decision. The situation surrounding the move was similar to that surrounding the NFL’s decision three decades ago.

Manfred did not refer to the NFL’s decision in the 1990s when acting in April, but instead “engaged in thoughtful conversations with Clubs, former and current players, the Players Association, and The Players Alliance, among others, to listen to their views,” he said in a statement.

In Georgia, like in Arizona, it was a partisan political issue that led to the move. In late March, SB202, a Republican-sponsored bill, was signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. The legislation included restrictions on voting by mail and helped move control over Georgia elections from local and state officials to the state legislature. Supporters of the bill contend that it expands voting rights throughout the state. Critics, including Major League Baseball, say it does the opposite by making voting more difficult for people of color.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Manfred said in a statement when MLB announced the move.

Three decades later, with the aid of hindsight and experience, Manager called the NFL and MLB situations “very similar.”

“You had a major sports league whose players and many stakeholders and constituents and sponsors are saying we have a certain set of core beliefs,” Manager said.

He also described MLB’s decision as “courageous” and “even more impactful” than the NFL’s all those years ago.

“You’ve seen the balance of power shift in many respects from the owners to the players [who] are more equalized, so to speak,” said Manager, a former senior director of global issues management for Nike. “So, athletes and stakeholders and activists are even more insistent these days about leagues and corporations making their voices heard and known and the consequences of not following or adhering to certain core values.”

Even though Arizona was awarded Super Bowl XXX, played in 1996, after the state voted to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the state lost an estimated $200 million worth of economic impact when the game was moved in 1993, according to an Associated Press report from 1990.

It was the latest economic blow to the state because of the Martin Luther King Day issue.

Starting in 1987, when a statewide Martin Luther King Day was rescinded by Gov. Evan Mecham, about 58 conventions were canceled, causing the state to lose about $30 million, according to a USA Today report a few days after the 1990 vote.

Then there was the impact that went beyond a financial toll.

Performers such as Stevie Wonder declared a boycott of the state, and both Notre Dame and Virginia turned down invitations to the Fiesta Bowl in 1990, according to The Associated Press. Arizona’s reputation was sullied as “intolerant” and “racist,” Manager said.

The state was left to clean up the mess.

“I had to do a lot of defending,” said Paul Johnson, who was Phoenix’s mayor from 1990-94. “I’d have to go out around the country and sometimes throughout the world, and I’d get asked about who we were.

“People would have a perspective of who we were and I would defend it.”

The NFL’s move was a landmark decision that Jim Steeg, who was the league’s director of special events at the time, believes has been largely forgotten.

“It’s not brought up that much,” Steeg said. “It should be. You almost have to remind people to remember when the NFL did this.”

MLK Day vs. Arizona vs. the NFL

When Bill Shover, the former publisher of the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, led a committee of local businesspeople to bid on Arizona’s first Super Bowl, the NFL made it known there could be fallout if the MLK vote failed.

Steeg remembers talking to the NFL about the issue “in depth” before the committee presented its bid, then before its preliminary bid and, finally, before the final bid. Shover’s response was to assure the NFL the measure would pass, Steeg recalled.

Back then, Steeg would present each city’s bids to the NFL’s owners. Concerns about the MLK Day holiday vote were part of his presentation for Tempe.

“At that point in time, we said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t, then maybe we’ve got an issue,'” Steeg said.

The debate on Arizona — which was among the last states to ratify MLK Day as a paid holiday along with New Hampshire, Virginia, Utah and South Carolina — having a Martin Luther King Day began long before the threat of losing a Super Bowl.

Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, used an executive order to implement the holiday in May 1986. When his successor, Mecham, took office in 1987, the Republican rescinded the holiday that January but later named the third Sunday in January as Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day. Supporters of a paid King holiday were not satisfied.

In 1989, with Mofford, a Democrat, in office after replacing the impeached Mecham, the state legislature passed a Martin Luther King holiday, but simultaneously ended a paid Columbus Day holiday, which angered Arizona’s Italian-American community. Reports from 1989 explained that Arizona’s Italian-American community and opponents of a Martin Luther King holiday were able to get enough signatures on a petition to force the measure on the ballot for Election Day 1990.

Heading into that day, two measures appeared on the ballot: Prop 301, which called for the addition of Martin Luther King Day as a paid state holiday in place of Columbus Day, and Prop 302, which added Martin Luther King Day as an additional paid state holiday.

“People did not know which one to vote for,” said Steve Roman, a former Phoenix-area businessman who was part of two pro-MLK Day groups, the Martin Luther King Jr. Better America Committee and Victory Together. “And, by the way, when people get confused, their go-to is to vote ‘no’ on anything. If somebody gets confused out there and they’re not exactly sure what to do, they just automatically vote no, so you’ve got that.

“And, by the way, it had to be a yes vote to win, so that’s why I say a no on either one of them. So, that was a big issue and it was complicated and it was problematic.”

Throughout the leadup to the vote, Johnson stayed in contact with Bill Bidwill, the then-Cardinals owner who died in 2019. The Cardinals had donated $20,000 and players another $15,000 to the Martin Luther King Jr. Better America Committee, according to USA Today.

Then, the Sunday before election day, CBS Sports’ Greg Gumbel broke the story that the NFL was prepared to move Super Bowl XXVII if the Martin Luther King Day measure did not pass.

“So, basically, they were telling people out there that, for whatever reason, whatever the way you want to vote or not, if you don’t vote the right way, you’re going to lose the Super Bowl,” Roman said. “And there were a lot of people that said, ‘You know, gosh darn it, don’t tell me how to vote. You’re not going to tell me what to do.'”

Prop 301, the measure that would have added Martin Luther King Day and removed Columbus Day, failed 74% to 26%. Prop 302, the measure that would’ve added a standalone Martin Luther King Day, was voted down 51% to 49%.

After both measures failed to pass, Roman and his group did a survey that found about 60,000 Arizonans voted against the measures because they believed they were being strong-armed by the NFL after Gumbel’s report. Gumbel, reached at his Florida home, declined to comment.

The NFL was surprised the holiday didn’t pass, Steeg said, and started the process of relocating Super Bowl XXVII, leaving Arizona to face the aftermath.

“It was a big disappointment,” former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini said. “But, that’s the price you have to pay for what appears to be discriminating.”

It was also a time for deep introspection — a “wake-up call,” DeConcini said — throughout Arizona, for individuals, communities and the state as a whole.

“What I remember most about all that happened, that it was an unnecessary evil that had to take place to jolt the business community and, I guess, the majority of the state into reality that the King holiday is an American holiday,” said Rev. Warren Stewart, a civil rights activist in the Phoenix area, who also chaired the Arizonans for a Martin Luther King Jr. State Holiday, and helped lead Victory Together.

“It’s not a Black holiday. It’s a holiday that represents America trying to do its best and live out what’s in the Constitution and preamble and Pledge of Allegiance.”

The right decision

A day after the NFL meetings ended in March 1991 in Hawaii, Steeg sat with commissioner Paul Tagliabue to discuss the owners’ vote to move Super Bowl XXVII out of Arizona.

It was a Thursday. The owners had all left the island. Tagliabue, who was named commissioner in November 1989, was facing his first landmark decision. Until then, Steeg remembered, Tagliabue had been on a honeymoon of sorts. He had been dealing with the NFLPA’s fight for free agency, which had reached the Supreme Court, but nothing forced Tagliabue to make a major decision on his own. Until now.

He talked with Steeg and then called a handful of owners, including former New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, who Tagliabue tracked down on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time all the calls were done, Tagliabue had made up his mind: The game couldn’t be played in Arizona.

The NFL had never moved a Super Bowl. The closest it came was in 1975 when Super Bowl IX (Minnesota vs. Pittsburgh) was supposed to be played at the Superdome. The stadium wasn’t completed as promised so the game was relocated to Tulane Stadium, but still in New Orleans. The NFL moved Super Bowl XXXIII (Atlanta vs. Denver), which was to be played in 1999, from San Francisco to Miami because a plan to renovate Candlestick Park never developed.

It also was one of the few times the NFL waded into political waters. Steeg remembered former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle making a social statement at Super Bowl XVI with a banner and moment of silence for the Solidarity movement in Poland.

“That was the only time I can ever remember Pete ever, kind of, getting involved … in a political or social moment,” Steeg said. “Here Paul was four months into it and all of a sudden he’s making something like that.”

Around Arizona, among those who supported a Martin Luther King holiday, the decision to move the game until the measure passed was viewed as the right one.

“I knew that for the greater good of the state of Arizona, we had to lose it in order to force the business community to step up,” said Pete Rios, the Arizona state senate president in 1991. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have stepped up.”

With Super Bowl XXVII headed to California, Arizona prepared for another vote on a Martin Luther King holiday in 1992. The NFL all but said if the MLK Day measure was passed, Arizona would get another Super Bowl.

Roman, the businessman who led coalitions in support of the holiday, turned his efforts to making sure the measure was more direct and easier to understand. The NFL’s decision rattled the business community, Manager said.

Almost 30 years later, feelings are split on whether the game — and its financial windfall — was used to sway voters.

Rios felt the game was used to influence the voters.

“I’m not sorry about it,” he said. “Sometimes, you do what you got to do in order to arrive at the right conclusion, and if that’s what it took to get some people off the fence and support a MLK holiday, then yeah, I’m all for it.”

Warren, however, says the desire to have a Martin Luther King holiday wasn’t a genuine championing of the day for many, that it was motivated by economic factors. For years, Stewart said he didn’t hear back from some in the business community when asking for their support on getting a Martin Luther King holiday passed, but as soon as the NFL threatened to move the game, his phone started ringing.

“It was driven by their desire to have a Super Bowl,” he said.

The NFL also did its part to help the game stay in Arizona the second time around.

“We made a point that it was no comment when anybody ever asked us anything about it,” Steeg said. “So, we completely stayed out of it.

“We made sure that everybody was muzzled the second time around.”

It worked.

The vote in 1992 passed 61% to 39%, giving Arizona a statewide Martin Luther King holiday — and a Super Bowl. The NFL had tentatively given Arizona Super Bowl XXX, which was confirmed during league meetings the following March.

By then, the state had lost about $300 million in revenue from lost events, according to reports. The damage was done.

But the five-year battle for a Martin Luther King holiday and the Super Bowl’s role in it set the stage for how politics and sports would intermingle in the future.

“The dynamics, I think, have really shifted,” Manager said. “Maybe Arizona, in some ways, helped to formulate this strategy for sports leagues — or, shall we say, codify the strategy for sports leagues to be emboldened and to use their economic power and the power of their sport.

“Sports, traditionally, has been a mirror to society … This was a very specific manner, and, so, I believe all of these serve as dominoes and lessons for us in terms of history to look at and to observe for future occasions. And it probably won’t be the last time. It has not been the last time with the MLB probably the latest example.”

Source : ESPN