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Why the NFL moved the Super Bowl from Arizona in 1990

The NFL can roll up the shield if it pleases. (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

If the NFL pulls the Super Bowl out of Arizona because of a controversial bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to gay people for religious reasons, it wouldn’t be the first time the country’s most popular sports league has pulled up stakes because of a divisive issue.

In 1990 as now, the location of the NFL’s title game played a big role in a political decision. The NFL decided then to move the 1993 Super Bowl because of Arizona’s refusal to make Martin Luther King Day an official state holiday. Instead, Super Bowl XXVII was played in Los Angeles, the runner-up when the game’s site was chosen.

When a voter referendum on the holiday was rejected in November 1990, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: “I do not believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the National Football League. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor.”

Norman Braman, then owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and chairman of the site selection committee, had warned that the lack of a King holiday could result in the loss of the game. “I think it’s tragic for the people who worked so hard to get the game there,” Braman said then. “But I think it would be an affront to our public and our players if the game was played there.”

Arizona eventually recognized MLK Day in 1992 and was awarded a Super Bowl in 1996 (and again in 2008).

This time around, Super Bowl XLIX inches closer, with the fate of the controversial bill resting with Gov. Jan Brewer. As she considers what to do, the Super Bowl host committee and the NFL are adamant about their position.

“Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email. “We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”

The host committee was less measured: “We do not support this legislation,” it said in a statement on its website.

If the bill becomes law, 11 months would be a tight timeframe in which to move the Super Bowl, but the NFL is feeling invincible after its “cold-weather” game earlier this month. “If we want, anything can be done given what it is,” Jim Steeg, who was Super Bowl director for 26 years, told USA Today.

Steeg noted that it wasn’t easy to move the game back a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because of an auto convention in New Orleans. As late as October, it considered moving the game to Miami. “That gave us 120 days to try to put that together,” he said. The league and auto dealers traded dates and the game was on. It could be done again.