The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Super Bowl LVI represents the clash of two realities for people of color in L.A.

The Rams and the NFL have courted fans of color — but they’ve also harmed marginalized communities.

Johnny, a man experiencing homelessness, collects cans and plastic bottles that he stocks in the cart he is pulling with his bike on a street near SoFi Stadium on Feb. 10 in Inglewood, Calif. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Super Bowl LVI is bound to be historic for Los Angeles. The hometown Rams are hoping to become just the second team in NFL history to win the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium. Hip-hop icons Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, along with R&B legend Mary J. Blige, are practicing for what promises to be an extraordinary halftime show that’s rooted in the 1980s and ’90s Los Angeles rap scene.

Outside the stadium, however, local residents are experiencing the negative impact of these preparations. In a collaboration between the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the city of Inglewood, unhoused residents living in an encampment on the path from the Los Angeles International Airport to the stadium have been removed, without housing or services, in the name of safety. These sweeps, primarily affecting people of color, are part of a larger campaign to criminalize the unhoused, an effort crystallized when the L.A. city council passed Municipal Code 41.18. The law, which went into effect last fall, makes it illegal to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security sent more than 500 personnel, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, to join the increased presence of law enforcement.

Right now, two realities are colliding in Inglewood — a much anticipated national event thrusting L.A. and its diverse local talent into the spotlight it loves, and a humanitarian crisis disproportionately affecting local people of color. This tension is a significant one, but it is not new. The longer history of professional football in Los Angeles tells us that even as the NFL and its teams have courted Black and Latino fanbases, the very communities from which those fans come bear the brunt of the cost of having professional football in their city.

In 1980, Los Angeles had lost the Los Angeles Rams to the city of Anaheim in Orange County. Before his death in 1979, owner Carroll Rosenbloom justified the move away from L.A. Memorial Coliseum by blaming the people of the surrounding South-Central neighborhoods, who were at the time predominantly working-class, African American, Mexican and Central American. While downplaying the enormous financial incentive and new publicly funded stadium awaiting the team in Orange County, Rosenbloom argued that fans were too fearful to attend games at the Coliseum, dismissing the possibility that some South-Central residents were themselves fans attending games and that local neighborhoods had for years suffered the downsides associated with home games like traffic and increased policing.

The loss of the Rams opened the door for the contested arrival of the Raiders from Oakland. The Raiders came with a famously sinister reputation. Owner Al Davis crafted a team image meant to incite fear by recruiting players with reputations as troublemakers and encouraging them to chase victory through an aggressive win-by-any-means approach. Mainstream L.A. sports journalists opposed the move and argued that for Los Angeles to adopt the team it would be important to “get Oakland out of the Raiders,” a reference as much to the Bay Area city closely associated with the Black Panther Party as to the Black and Latino people of East Oakland, fiercely loyal to the team. Residents of the White suburb of El Segundo, where the Raiders would practice, raised concerns about the characteristics of fans and associates the team might bring with it.

Nonetheless, the Raiders arrived at the L.A. Coliseum in 1982. Journalists, relying on stadium attendance as a gauge of fan support, described a lukewarm reception for the team. In fact, as the new Los Angeles Raiders prepared to compete against Washington in the 1984 Super Bowl, sportswriters lamented that the team lacked a true fan base and would largely be playing for itself.

Imagine their surprise when, upon the Raiders’ win and the team’s homecoming, thousands attended the multiday Super Bowl victory celebration and fan favorites, including running back Marcus Allen, a University of Southern California alumnus, and Mexican American head coach Tom Flores, exclaimed their love for their Los Angeles home and their L.A. fans. Flores proclaimed the event was proof of a Raiders takeover of the city, and Allen surprised attendees with his own version of Randy Newman’s hit song “I Love L.A.”

The predominantly Black and Latino crowd outside City Hall cheered on their team, a team that rose to Super Bowl glory in their likeness — underdogs fighting for recognition and respect. L.A.’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, thanked the team for bringing the city its first world championship, but he also declared that the Raiders united the community as never before, and, to honor that, he awarded Flores a key to the city.

This moment celebrating African American and Mexican American excellence highlighted a Los Angeles rarely represented by the glitz and glam of Hollywood. The Los Angeles that the Raiders and their fans represented was one that, like East Oakland, had been shaped by housing segregation, economic marginalization and a declining manufacturing economy, but also refused to give up and would fight for a better future with a just-win attitude.

Unlike the Rams, the Raiders franchise actively courted this often-ignored fan base. Mexican American marketing specialist Gil Lafferty-Hernandez became a local celebrity handing out team souvenirs at community events and in working-class neighborhoods. At the request of L.A.-based rap group N.W.A. (of which Dr. Dre was a member), Raiders marketing director Michael Orenstein gifted black-and-silver team pennants, caps and jackets to rappers, producers and DJs. And fans in turn helped advance the Raiders brand, sometimes in radical ways. As former N.W.A. member Ice Cube chronicled in his documentary “Straight Outta L.A.,” Los Angeles gangster rappers and their own fans helped transform Raiders merchandise into symbols of resistance against police brutality and structural racism.

The Raiders franchise profited immensely from this African American-led effort. But it wasn’t enough to keep the team in Los Angeles. Following the 1992 L.A. Uprising — which was, like the rebellion in 1965, against rampant police violence and injustice — Davis took a page from the Rams’ playbook. Just as Rosenbloom had, Davis initiated his own flight from an inner-city community hit by economic hardship, racism and law enforcement abuses. Raiders leaders disparaged South Central as dangerous and crime-ridden, while big financial incentives — including $85 million in stadium renovations financed by local bonds diverted from public services — awaited them back in Oakland.

After the Raiders left (and the Rams moved to St. Louis), Los Angeles was without a professional football team for over 20 years — that is, until the Rams returned in 2016. This time, they settled in Inglewood, one of L.A.’s last Black enclaves where it seemed the Rams understood the critical importance of acknowledging fans of color. Toward this end, the Rams have (and still do) regularly feature their in-house mariachi band and have sought collaborations with hip-hop artists rooted in the region. The team has also adopted fan-created chants, most famously, the call and response “Whose House? Rams’ House!” inspired by Run-DMC’s “Run’s House.”

Yet, the Rams’ arrival to Inglewood and the construction of a nearly 300-acre multiuse development project that includes SoFi Stadium, the most expensive American football stadium to date and the site for Super Bowl LVI, has drawn new development projects, raised the cost of land, exacerbated housing costs and, therefore, spurred gentrification and displacement. The construction of SoFi Stadium, in this way, represents a very real threat to the future of communities of color in the Los Angeles area.

The Super Bowl halftime show this year will feature some of the most critical narrators of the Black struggle in Los Angeles, and the Rams could make history with a win. The team, like the Raiders, has courted fans of color, who will be among those filling SoFi stadium and cheering them on. But representation is not enough, and local fans deserve a livable city. Spotlighting the diverse culture of L.A. is no replacement for a true investment in the neighborhoods the Rams franchise impacts. Because as housing rights organizers relentlessly show us, SoFi Stadium may be the “Rams’ House,” but Inglewood, and greater Los Angeles, belongs to the people.