On March 13, 1990, the NFL awarded Super Bowl XXVII to a state that did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Owners considered three host-city bids, but chose Phoenix. Local officials were “elated.” Politicians called it “fantastic,” and “a good day for Arizona,” one that would “enhance the image of Arizona not only nationally but worldwide.”
Super Bowl XXVII, however, did not happen in Arizona. Because sports leagues are not apolitical institutions.
A year later, citing the state’s continued failure to observe the federal holiday, NFL owners voted to move the game to Los Angeles. The reversal likely cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars. It exerted pressure on local leaders. Sure enough, the following year, they changed their tune. In 1992, the state recognized MLK Day.
The NFL’s actions contributed to change. Three decades later, they stand as proof of sport’s social power. And now, in 2020, with unrest sweeping America, that power is as important as ever.
Over the past few days, the country’s biggest sports organizations have promised to use it. Millions of Americans have responded to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others with calls for racial justice, for police reform, for change. Sports leagues say they’re ready to help create it. The NFL, Roger Goodell said, is “committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues.” Adam Silver, in an internal NBA memo obtained by Yahoo Sports, said that, “as an organization, we need to do everything in our power to make a difference.”
Making the commitment, though, is the easy part. Following through on it is tricky. Words aren’t enough. Actions have multifarious consequences – by which leagues, in many past cases, have been deterred.
But the NFL’s Arizona decision, and other analogous ones, not only show leagues that they can make an impact. Within those examples is an answer to the “how” question as well.
From reactive to proactive
In 2015, the NBA awarded its 2017 All-Star Game to Charlotte. In 2016, the state of North Carolina passed House Bill 2, which prevented city governments from enacting ordinances to protect the LGBT community. The NBA responded by threatening to strip All-Star festivities away from the state. When politicians didn’t budge, the league relocated the festivities and all the economic activity tied to them. Similar pressure from the NCAA, which withheld March Madness hosting rights, ultimately led to a partial repeal of the bill.
This is how sports organizations have used banner events as political capital. A local government contradicts a league’s values. Leagues go back on their word. Their actions can be effective, but are punitive. Reactive.
The next step, for leagues truly committed to repairing injustice, is proactive.
If the NBA can revoke an All-Star Game in the name of human rights, it can award one in the name of human rights too. It can establish certain policy benchmarks as prerequisites for bidding cities. It can grant hosting rights not based on a city’s amenities or economic potential but rather on its investment in minority communities, or on its police department reform. The league can sit down with its players and ask: What specific social change do you want to see? It can take their answers, formally or informally, to municipalities and say: If you’d like to host All-Star Weekend, here’s what your politicians and non-governmental leaders have to do for your city to be eligible. (This would incentivize franchises to push for social change in their respective cities as well.)
The NFL can do the same with the Super Bowl and draft. MLB, the NHL and MLS can do the same with their All-Star Games. Any organization, from the UFC to U.S. Soccer, that shops desirable events around to different markets can attach social-justice strings to the bidding process. The difficult part is figuring out what, exactly, those strings are.
There are thousands of active NFL players, and hundreds in the NBA, and their worldviews cover every tick mark on every sociopolitical continuum. Over the past week, a diverse chorus of voices among them have supported this vague, agreeable notion of change. But if each were asked to define change, definitions would vary widely. Carving that notion into specific policies is the next task, and to some it may seem a gargantuan one.
But differences and disagreement are fundamental to any society or democratic organization. No elected leader represents the views of every single one of her or his constituents. A league, dozens of owners and hundreds of players consistently negotiate, and every few years find common ground on a collective bargaining agreement – on labor terms and long-term visions and revenue sharing schemes and more. Why can’t racial justice initiatives be added to the list?
This issue, at its core, comes back to the players. To the black players who’ve long been fighting this fight, and to the white players speaking up, and to those who’ve remained silent. Like the leagues, many of them have released statements. But how strong is their commitment to action and solutions?
If it’s strong, they can create committees, or “coalitions,” or work with policy experts as an entire union, to craft the reform they want to see. They can take it to their leagues, which have pledged to work with them, and push executives to act. The leagues themselves don’t have to take political stances. They can honor their commitment to change merely by listening and acting on behalf of their players.
And while the utility of a Super Bowl or All-Star Game as a carrot is limited to localized change, localized change is vital to what many players have said they want. “The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels,” former President Barack Obama wrote Monday.
There, in the biggest cities and states across America, is where players and their leagues wield considerable influence. There, if their commitment to combating systemic racism is real, is where they can start.
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