A referendum question on establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Arizona was narrowly defeated Nov. 6. The following day, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he would recommend that the 1993 Super Bowl be moved from Tempe (a suburb of Phoenix) to a location outside the state.

Since then, he and the league have been charged with playing the bully and attempting to impose certain social and political ideas on a state whose voters had made it clear they rejected them. In fact, the NFL is probably guilty of little more than exercising some prudence and foresight in moving to head off a situation that could have disrupted its major event of the year.

The Arizona legislature voted in May to establish the King holiday (Arizona is one of three states that do not observe it; the others are New Hampshire and Montana), but a petition drive forced the bill to referendum. Some opponents of the holiday objected, for one reason or another, to honoring Dr. King, while others said it was a matter of frugality -- the holiday overtime would cost the state about a half-million dollars. The referendum question seemed likely to win, however, until a report was aired on network television that an unfavorable vote would cause the Super Bowl to be moved elsewhere. That apparently got enough backs up in Arizona to turn the thing around.

You don't have to credit Mr. Tagliabue or the league with a great deal of altruism to believe they were then left with little choice other than to seek a new site for the Super Bowl. The possibility of a boycott or some other action by players on the two Super Bowl teams in January of 1993 couldn't be ignored nor should it have been. The Super Bowl is said to bring its host city some $200 million, none of which would be possible without the 80 or so men who play the game. There's nothing wrong with taking account of their sensibilities as human beings who may have strong feelings about matters beyond the stadium walls.