As Michael Sam prepares to become the first openly gay employee of an NFL team, the league has officially said all the right things (though some anonymous team executives, it seemed, took a less enlightened approach). And as S.B. 1062, the now-vetoed Arizona law that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay customers in the name of religious freedom, made its way to Governor Jan Brewer’s desk, the NFL remained consistent. The league, first and foremost a buttoned-up business enterprise keen on maximizing revenue, at least showed a social pulse.
Yes, the NFL’s official statement in the lead-up to Brewer’s action did not outwardly slam the bill. “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” the NFL said. “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.” Still, it was fairly easy to hear the message. The NFL found the bill troubling, and waved a pretty big stick in the shadows: namely, the 2015 Super Bowl, which will be played in the Phoenix area.
Would the NFL have taken the radical step of moving the game elsewhere, due to a state policy? It wasn’t out of the question. There’s a bit of precedence. In 1990, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue threatened to move the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona if voters did not approve the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. After voters balked, the game was relocated to Pasadena, Calif. (Arizona eventually voted in favor of the holiday, and the 1996 game took place in Tempe).
Here, Roger Goodell did not make an overt threat to Brewer: veto this, or we’re out of here. And it would be logistically tricky to reshuffle the game within a year. Still, the NFL has shunned Arizona in the past. As for the time issue, there’s also precedent for moving on short notice. After 9/11, the NFL swapped dates with an auto-dealers convention to push back the Super Bowl in New Orleans by a week. If that hadn’t worked out, the league was considering moving the game to Miami. After Hurricane Katrina, the Saints moved their entire team to San Antonio for the rest of the season.
Threat of relocation aside, Brewer surely knew that an Arizona Super Bowl would give the national media another week-long excuse to pound the law. The game also gives protestors another huge platform. It’s a headache. The Super Bowl’s looming presence only helped defeat the bill. Arizona’s Super Bowl Host Committee came right out and opposed it. The Arizona Cardinals were also unhappy. “We do not support anything that has the potential to divide, exclude, or discriminate,” the team said.
The law would have impacted all four major sports leagues, which have teams in the Phoenix area. Would Michael Sam be refused a sandwich in Arizona, while his team was in town to play the Cardinals? What if the Cardinals wanted to draft Sam? Or scoop him up as a free agent down the road? Why would he ever sign with them? Assuming more players come out of the closet over the next few years — a safe bet, it seems — such a law would have put the leagues and teams in a regrettable position.
So the NFL, especially, is cheering Brewer’s decision. And given the league’s official welcoming of Sam, its implicit opposition to the Arizona law, and even its idea to throw the flag on the N-word, there are at least small indications that the NFL is entering a new phase in its corporate history: the socio-political one. Sure, some of these moves are reactive: to Sam, and to the proposed law. But there’s more activity than usual. Let’s see how long it lasts.