What does the NFL have to do with Arizona’s bill letting businesses refuse service to gay people?


The Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

The Arizona legislature approved a bill last week that would allow businesses citing religious beliefs to refuse service to gay people. Proponents of the bill say it is meant to protect religious liberties, while opponents say it will drive businesses away from the state.

There’s also another big factor at play here: Arizona is scheduled to host the biggest sporting event in the United States next year, and a quarter century after one controversy cost the state a Super Bowl, the bill’s detractors are worried that this new bill could lead to boycotts.

The 49th Super Bowl is set for Feb. 1, 2015, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. This game has become much more than just the flagship event of the most popular sport in the country, evolving over the years into a massive, cultural maelstrom that attracts audiences and attention from around the world.

It’s a huge draw for tourists and a big opportunity for local businesses, which is why the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee launched a program meant “to increase opportunities for local small businesses to conduct Super Bowl business.”

The exact benefits of hosting the Super Bowl remain disputed. Officials estimated that the recent Super Bowl in New Jersey could generate between $550 million to $600 million for the New York area economy (though the exact numbers are less clear). “There’s an economic boost, and that’s measurable, but also I think it’s a psychological boost,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has said of his state hosting the game less than 18 months after Superstorm Sandy.

Last year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans generated $480 million, one study reported, while an analysis found that the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis poured $278 million into that area’s economy. The last Super Bowl in Arizona — the 2008 contest that saw the New York Giants upset the undefeated New England Patriots (obligatory “helmet catch” link) — generated $500 million in spending, according to an Arizona State University study.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has not said yet if she will sign or veto the new Arizona bill. But already, business groups in Arizona including the state’s Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and Arizona Technology Council are lining up to ask her to veto it. (The state’s two senators have also publicly called for a veto.)

In a letter to Brewer, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council emphasized the upcoming game in requesting a veto.

“This legislation has the potential of subjecting the Super Bowl, and major events surrounding it, to the threats of boycotts,” the group wrote.

The council cited negative attention “across national and social media” as well as potentially “profound, negative effects” on the local business community lasting for years.

There’s also a very high-profile storyline looming over the NFL season that will culminate in Glendale next year: The NFL may be on the verge of drafting its first openly gay player in May. Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive end and reigning Southeastern Conference co-player of the year, recently announced that he was gay. (Jason Collins became the NBA’s first openly gay player.) Which means that, should Sam get drafted and should the bill become law, the first NFL season with an openly gay player may end in a game facing boycotts over the host state’s treatment of gay people.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Arizona has faced potential boycotts over a controversial law. In 2010, the state passed a strict immigration law, leading to boycotts that cost the state millions in lost hotel and convention business.

And this is also not the first time Arizona has found itself facing criticism for a law seen as intolerant while gearing up for the international spotlight that comes with hosting a Super Bowl.

Tempe, Ariz., was originally supposed to host the 1993 Super Bowl, which featured the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills. But the NFL had warned that the game wouldn’t be played there if the state failed to create a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

The issue’s roots dated back several years. A federal holiday honoring King, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, was first observed in 1986. In Arizona that same year, outgoing Gov. Bruce Babbitt established the holiday in the state via executive order (after the state legislature had voted down a bill that would have let Arizona observe the holiday).

But in January 1987, Babbitt’s successor Evan Mecham followed through on a campaign pledge and rescinded the order shortly after being sworn in. (Mecham, if you’re curious, was later indicted, impeached and removed from office over issues involving state funds.)

A sharp debate over the holiday persisted over the next few years, leading up to a statewide vote in 1990. Voters narrowly rejected the holiday. Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner at the time, honored what he said before the vote and announced that he would urge owners to move the 1993 game out of the state.

“The Super Bowl is a major and unique event, and the game should be played free of controversy when possible,” Tagliabue said of the decision.

Not long after the vote, the NFL owners took the 1993 Super Bowl away from Arizona and awarded it to Pasadena, Calif. (One study said the Los Angeles region saw $183 million in new business the month of the game.) The owners also tentatively awarded the 1996 Super Bowl to Arizona — but only if the state adopted the holiday. That finally happened in 1992, making Arizona among the last states in the country to approve the King holiday.

In 1996, Tempe got to host its Super Bowl, with the Dallas Cowboys (again) beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. The region saw a reported $300 million in economic impact, numbers that were eclipsed with the state’s second Super Bowl a dozen years later.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.

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Mark Berman · February 21, 2014