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Arizona’s Super Bowl that wasn’t, 30 years later: ‘Did we do the right thing? Absolutely.’

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on the NFL moving its championship after Arizona failed to make MLK Day a paid holiday

In 1991, NFL club owners voted to remove the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix after Arizona voters failed to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday. They originally awarded the game to the Arizona Cardinals and owner Bill Bidwill on March 13, 1990. Subsequently, however, two yes/no referendums on MLK Day were defeated.

It would have been untenable for the NFL to have permitted Arizona to keep the game, and then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Norman Braman, then-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and chairman of the site selection committee, were open about what would happen if the holiday wasn’t approved. Removed from Arizona, the 1993 Super Bowl was then awarded to Los Angeles.

At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the Dallas Cowboys routed the Buffalo Bills 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII, launching a dynasty that would win three Super Bowl championships in four seasons. In Arizona, the holiday was again placed on the ballot in 1992, and it received 62% approval. With Arizona recognizing MLK Day, the 1996 Super Bowl was played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17.

On the 30th anniversary of the Super Bowl that was initially awarded to Arizona, former commissioner Tagliabue reflected on the NFL’s handling of the situation in a lengthy interview with Andscape.

At that time, 47 states had approved the holiday. President [Ronald] Reagan had approved it [in 1983] by signing the [bill that established the first national holiday in honor of King]. So, when they didn’t vote it in — which, if I recall correctly, was a surprise to the people who were advocating for the holiday in Arizona — we were going to announce immediately that it was not in the league’s interests or the public’s interests to play the game in Arizona.

Did we do the right thing? Absolutely, I feel we did. Right after the vote, I said publicly and Braman said publicly that it wasn’t in the best interests of the league to play the game there. As the chairman of the committee, Braman spoke more. He was the one who spoke on behalf of the committee.

Both the local advocates for the King holiday and the opponents of the King holiday understood that this was the way were going to proceed if the holiday wasn’t approved. And the governor at the time [Republican Evan Mecham], he knew, too. We were very clear. But he thought it was in his own political interests to exploit the opposition of the King holiday.

The committee understood the pros and cons. The committee was focused on the governor and the local civil rights groups who were advocating for the holiday. And even if the conversation was focused only locally and without the national background, I feel the committee still would have persuaded the membership to vote the way they did. But the national background made the decision even more obvious.

Super Bowl XXX between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, on Jan. 28, 1996.

Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

We didn’t want to make the Super Bowl the platform for the segregationists. In whatever way you want to characterize them, we just didn’t want to give them a platform – which would have been a national platform.

I mean, once the president of the United States signs [a bill], you would like to think that the states would go along with it. We know today in the current political divide, that’s not the case. There were divides back then, too, but they weren’t as concrete as the cultural wars we have today.

Whether you’re talking about the rights of African Americans, the rights of women or whomever you’re arguing for, you have to make a judgment. You have to ask yourself whether you’re alienating more people than you’re pleasing. And if you start alienating, for whatever reason, a huge segment of the population, you have to start asking the question, Is this counterproductive? I think it was [former associate justice of the Supreme Court] Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that about the women’s movement.

Basically, what she said was to advocate strongly for what you believe in, but try to make more allies than enemies when you’re doing that. That’s a very important thing. It’s like a football game. If you go into a game thinking you’re gonna concentrate on the passing game, and all of a sudden you’re 0 for 10 in passing, maybe it’s time to start running the ball a little bit.

You have to be prepared to change, and willing to change, if circumstances change. You know, it’s like the old story: Every plan is great until you meet the enemy.

That’s what Braman’s committee understood. The committee members understood not only what they wanted, but they also knew what they were gonna do when the enemy appeared. When the voters voted it down, it was a foregone conclusion what the committee was going to do. It’s what they had already agreed to do.

The other key thing was … we didn’t want to make the Super Bowl the platform for the segregationists. In whatever way you want to characterize them, we just didn’t want to give them a platform – which would have been a national platform. The committee had to think about whether the stadium would be the biggest platform that opponents of civil rights get. And if it would be, does that make sense.

You would want to figure out how you could avoid that outcome. Because that wouldn’t have been a positive outcome.

From 1989 to 2006, Tagliabue served as commissioner of the NFL. During his watch, the league expanded from 28 to 32 teams, recorded unprecedented financial growth and strengthened its position as pro sports’ most successful and powerful league.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.