I was all set to write that the University of Virginia did the wrong thing by essentially saying no to the Fiesta Bowl.
How can you elect not to go to the Fiesta because Arizonans voted down the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, then choose the Sugar Bowl even though Louisianans came close to voting former Klansman David Duke, already a state senator, to the U.S. Senate? What would Virginia do next year during the ACC season, vote not to play North Carolina and N.C. State because North Carolinians reelected Jesse Helms?
Do the people at Virginia really think that if the King holiday was put to a vote in all 50 states it would pass in more than half? Utah? Mississippi? Indiana? (It's celebrated in all but three, but it was recognized by legislative fiat, not popular vote.) A cross was burned by the KKK within walking distance of my hotel room at the Indy 500 last May. If we're assessing race relations, having been to 48 of the 50 states, I wouldn't even put Arizona in the bottom half.
Instead of talking about blocking and tackling and giving 110 percent, why didn't Virginia officials encourage the football players to go to Tempe, Ariz., a town that does celebrate the King holiday, as does Phoenix, and use that forum and all those press conferences to reopen some dialogue. Perhaps they could have educated some people whose minds aren't completely closed, to confront ignorance and bigotry and look them in the face the way King would have.
And who better to have in the traveling contingent than Gov. Douglas Wilder, the nominal head of the university, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, father of a Cavaliers starting linebacker. What could either have better to do that week than stand in front of every television camera in the state of Arizona and force people to listen to what they don't want to hear?
I was prepared to make that argument. Then I talked to two old friends who convinced me after 20 minutes to reconsider my position.
They argued that the legacy of the civil rights movement is that 20 years later there are certain things our society will not tolerate. If you're Jimmy the Greek, Al Campanis or Hall Thompson and you spew your ignorance publicly after 30-plus years of being begged not to, you suffer immediate consequences, immediate repercussions.
The greatness of Martin Luther King Jr., one of my friends said, lies in the fact that black leaders aren't the only ones screaming now, that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the white Virginia administrators now jump out of their chairs to say, "No, this is intolerable, this is wrong," without being prodded.
Arizonans aren't so isolated they don't know what King contributed to America, yet they twice said through their vote that King isn't worthy of a holiday. Fine, Arizonans can vote as they please. That's their right. But it's my right to spend my money -- and that's all bowl games are about, spending money; $90 million or so in the Fiesta's case -- with people who are at least sensitive enough not to offend so blatantly.
The failure to recognize the King holiday is the Arizonans' choice, but that failure can lead to certain economic consequences. Capitalism is as much about leverage as anything.
Aside from TV ads, local businessmen feed bowl games. They won't pay for a dud matchup -- and that's what it will be if other top teams follow Notre Dame and Virginia and decline. The question here, my second friend said, is whether the people of Arizona will feel the strain on their pocketbooks quicker than the strain on their consciences.
Meanwhile, Tagliabue's recommendation that the 1993 Super Bowl be pulled out of Sun Devil Stadium is the right one. Tagliabue's position is courageous, laudable, and it wasn't forced on him by any special interest group. Talk about economic sanctions, the NFL is about to call Arizona's bluff to the tune of about $200 million if the 28 member clubs vote to take the country's biggest party elsewhere.
It's quite easy to find a state that has a healthier respect for King. What Arizona has demonstrated, more than bigotry, is a lack of patriotism. Martin Luther King Jr. is an American hero, not just a black one.
Still, while the NFL has become sensitized in one area, it needs to look at itself closely. The NFL's own house is still a mess. No black general managers. One black head coach. Not one of the men mentioned as a possible successor to the recently fired Bud Carson is black.
You don't have to look any farther than Redskin Park to find two of the sharpest minds in the NFL, Bobby Mitchell and Emmitt Thomas, vastly underemployed. Here's one NFL-related boycott I'm dying to see: black players prepared to stay home one Sunday unless club owners and league officials get serious.
Is Tagliabue's position hypocritical?
No. If professional sports leagues, the television networks -- and the major newspapers, for that matter -- had to be perfect before taking a stand, they'd never get the chance. The sorry history of the NFL and its race relations is not only Tagliabue's burden, but it is the risk he runs in taking such a position.
Arizonans may have voted twice to reject a King holiday; the NFL owners have voted every year since the 1930s to exclude blacks from virtually every decision-making position in their private little club.