There is not much evidence that Martin Luther King and the National Football League of the American Football League had much interaction with one another during the Civil Rights Era. King was just 17 years old when the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission reached a deal with the owners of the Cleveland Rams to relocate the franchise to the west coast in 1946 with the provision that the Rams franchise had to hire Negro players.
King was only 17 in 1946 when Paul Brown hired Negro players for his All American Conference Cleveland Browns franchise.
King was 17 in 1946 when Penn State canceled a game in Miami against the University of Miami because the school would only play against other schools who left Negro players behind. Penn State had Wally Triplett along with Dennis Hoggard on the squad and his teammates refused to give into the University of Miami’s demand.
King was 19 when Tripplett and Hoggard became the first Negroes to play in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State players refuse to leave their two teammates behind. The “We are Penn State” chant is thought to have started with that action.
King was not involved in the Kennedy Administration’s successful push to desegregate George Preston Marshall’s NFL franchise in Washington in 1962.
King was not involved in the African American players’ boycott of the 1965 American Football League All-Star Game in New Orleans because of a local black lash against African Americans playing in that game. The players voted not to play and the game was moved to Houston.
But the NFL and Martin Luther King became linked in the 1980s.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a holiday by an act of the United States Congress and the signature of President Ronald Reagan in 1983. John McCain opposed the holiday creation in 1983 as a freshman Congressman from Arizona but sometime around 1990, McCain changed his mind roughly at the same time that the King Holiday issue became a political football in Arizona.
The King Holiday was not high on the NFL’s radar in 1986 when the holiday that was first celebrated nationally on a state-by-state basis.
Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt had also declared that Arizona would celebrate the holiday in 1987, even though the state legislature failed to pass legislation to officially recognize the holiday.
However, newly-elected Governor Meacham rescinded the holiday in 1987 because it was “illegally created.”
In 1987, St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill struck out in his four-year bid to get St. Louis to build a new facility for his football club and decided to move to Tempe because the Arizona State University’s stadium had a much larger capacity than St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, and he preferred the warm climate of the Southwest. It was then that the NFL was forced into the Martin Luther King Day holiday controversy. Bidwill’s Cardinals bombed at the gate in their first season and in March 1990 the NFL decided to give Bidwill a boost by awarding Super Bowl XXVII to Tempe. NFL owners knew that Arizona was not celebrating the King Holiday but were given assurances by Arizona business and political leaders that the state would change its stance and recognize the federal holiday. They also knew that there was an economic boycott of the state and that they were going to get involved in a politically sensitive issue in the state.
After Governor Evan Meacham canceled the King Holiday in 1987, performer Stevie Wonder announced that he would boycott performing in Arizona, and convention planners also bypassed the state. The battle was on. In 1989, the state legislature passed legislation to create a state holiday honoring King but opponents managed to get enough signatures to get voters in the state to decide on whether or not to honor King in November 1990. Arizona voters overturned the legislature’s decision and the NFL pulled Super Bowl XXVII from Tempe and moved it to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
But that was not the end of the story. NFL owners along with the National Football League Players Association stepped up the pressure on the Arizona legislature and told local politicians that the league would never consider playing a Super Bowl in the Phoenix area unless the state recognized the holiday.
The January 1996 Super Bowl became available, and the NFL was making noises that it was interested in going to Tempe if Arizona finally said yes to Martin Luther King Day. In 1992, Arizona voters had another chance at passing a referendum recognizing the King Holiday, by a vote of 62–38, and approved the establishment of the holiday. About four-and-a-half months later, in March 1993, NFL awarded Super Bowl XXX to Tempe.
The NFL was instrumental in creating Martin Luther King Day in Arizona and the 1996 Super Bowl was played in Tempe.
King was around for just Super Bowls and the game wasn’t even called the Super Bowl during his lifetime.
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at email@example.com. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.