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Throwback Thursday: The NFL Takes the Super Bowl Away from Arizona

In 1991, the NFL voted to strip Arizona of the 1993 Super Bowl over the state's refusal to adopt a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

They had put out a stern warning a year earlier, so it wasn't a complete surprise when the NFL's owners voted to move the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena on March 19, 1991. Still, the significance of the moment shouldn't be underestimated. Given that this league is not exactly known for radical politics, a room full of millionaires and billionaires deciding to relocate their biggest event to signal their disapproval at the state of Arizona's refusal to acknowledge the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday just might qualify as one of the most progressive acts the NFL has ever undertaken. That's true even if that progressivism was, in fact, a matter of political expedience.


At the very least, it was a moment when the league was—for once—on the proper side of history.

The historic vote was years in the making, and if you're trying to fathom why it was necessary—why Arizonans would not only refuse to officially celebrate one of America's greatest leaders, but also turn down a freaking day off from work—it helps to understand the state's complex geographic and cultural history. According to longtime Arizona State social psychology professor Bruce Merrill, Arizona was (and in some ways, still is) a state where many residents arrived in the midst of "White Flight" from the East Coast. They left cities like Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit to "get away from African-Americans, frankly," Merrill said. Meanwhile, Arizona's black population at the time of the vote was roughly three percent, according to Rev. Warren H. Stewart, one of the state's key proponents of the holiday.

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And yet when President Reagan signed a bill in 1983 declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday, Arizona was on board. The state had a Democratic governor in Bruce Babbitt, and he issued an executive order approving the holiday after the state legislature rejected it. In 1987, Babbitt was succeeded by Evan Mecham, a Republican, and a few days after taking office, Mecham made good on a campaign promise: He cancelled the MLK holiday in Arizona, declaring that King didn't deserve a holiday, and then telling to a group of black community leaders, "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs."


More of Mecham's greatest hits, courtesy of the Washington Post: he said that the people behind a gubernatorial recall petition were "a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats;" that working women cause divorce; that Jews should face up to the fact that the United States is a Christian nation; that a group of visiting Japanese businessmen's "eyes got round" when they heard about Arizona's plentiful golf courses; and that he didn't see a problem with calling black children "pickaninnies."

This may shock you, but Mecham was also a terrible and corrupt executive. He would soon become the first American governor to face removal from office through impeachment, a recall election, and a felony indictment. He was impeached and removed from office in 1988; bumper stickers in the state read "Pickaninny: What we did for Governor." Still, the controversy over MLK Day lingered. Protests were held, and boycotts ensued, led by King's wife Coretta, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Public Enemy released the song "By The Time I Get To Arizona" as part of the movement; the song's video called out Mecham for his bigotry. The state lost millions of dollars of revenue.

Arizona's legislature created a holiday in 1989, but in 1990, opponents of the decision forced a voting referendum. That spring, the NFL met in Orlando to determine the location of the 1993 Super Bowl, and awarded the game to Arizona largely to help out Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill's then-struggling franchise. Civil rights leaders sent activist Art Mobley to meet with the owners and encourage them to move the game if Arizona didn't approve the holiday, either through the legislature or through a vote.


If that approval did not occur, NFL owners understood, the game would be plagued by boycotts and controversy; it would also sow mistrust among a player base that was overwhelmingly African-American. The political pressure on the state was sufficient by that point that even the NFL could join in without feeling like it was resorting to radicalism. Perhaps the more pointed political move would have been to ignore the issue altogether, but the majority of NFL owners took a progressive stance. "… If in the process the King holiday and name becomes smeared," said Eagles owner Norman Braman, the chair of the Super Bowl site committee, "I will personally lead a move to rescind this Super Bowl bid. We just wouldn't go there. How would anybody in their right mind go in there and play?"

"I think we all would be happy to rescind that Super Bowl bid," said Saints general manager Jim Finks.

TFW you have no regrets for calling Arizona on its racist bullshit. — Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On the Sunday before Arizona's vote, a CBS report surfaced that commissioner Paul Tagliabue had already drafted a letter recommending the game be moved if the MLK Day referendum failed. Believe it or not, this likely was crucial. Arizona, remember, is a state that refuses to adopt daylight savings time; its voters do not like feeling as though they're being told what to do. When the votes were tallied, one report noted that 16,000 people changed their vote due to anger over Tagliabue's presumptuousness; the measure, which included a pair of vaguely confusing ballot initiatives, failed by roughly 17,000 votes.

Tagliabue immediately made good on his threat, recommending the game be moved. After a four-hour discussion at their meetings in Kona, Hawaii, in March of 1991, the league got the 21 of 28 necessary votes from its owners. The 1993 Super Bowl was awarded to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and Phoenix was given the 1996 Super Bowl, on the condition that Arizona adopt a Martin Luther King Day holiday sometime before then.

The decision also forced the NFL to consider its own lack of diversity: At the time, the league had one black head coach, no black offensive or defensive coordinators, and no black general managers or owners. It would take another decade before the league passed the Rooney Rule, mandating the interview of minority candidates for head coach and senior operations jobs. It wouldn't take nearly as long for Arizona to finally adopt the MLK Holiday. In 1992, faced with a far clearer and simpler ballot initiative, the state's voters approved it.

Still, the lingering conservative politics of Arizona have reared their head since then: In 2014, the prospect of the NFL pulling the 2015 Super Bowl from state arose after the legislature approved a bill that would have allowed business owners citing religious beliefs to refuse service to gay people. Arizona's Republican governor Jan Brewer, perhaps recalling the mistakes of her predecessor, vetoed the bill.