In America, there’s supposed to be a stark separation between sports and real life. Sporting events are designed to be forms of escapist entertainment, much-needed opportunities for Americans to forget about things like budget deficits and political candidates and focus instead on their hometown team.
On Facebook, you can find a popular group entitled “Keep Your Politics Out Of My Arizona Sports” that tries to preserve this escapist element of sports. The stated reason for the group’s existence is simple: It’s for “Democrats and Republicans alike who don’t want to see their hometown teams get caught up in political issues.”
Though Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson once entertained the idea of serving as former teammate Bill Bradley’s campaign manager for his ill-fated 2000 presidential run, he could easily be a member of the group, as well.
“I have respect for those who oppose the new Arizona immigration law, but I am wary of putting entire sports organizations in the middle of political controversies,” said Jackson.
Jackson and the Facebook group were referring to the recently passed Arizona law that aims to crack down on what some see as the growing threat posed to the state by illegal immigration. The ownership of the Phoenix Suns, they argue, made an unwise statement by permitting the team to wear ‘Los Suns’ jerseys to protest the Arizona law.
Still, there are calls by everyone from Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen — whose team trains in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale — to San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez urging Major League Baseball to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix. One soccer match on July 7 featuring two teams from Mexico at a Glendale, Arizona stadium was canceled. And the World Boxing Council will not schedule Mexican fighters in boxing matches in Arizona.
For the 125 members of the Keep Your Politics Out Of My Arizona Sports group – and for Jackson – here’s a sobering reality check: Politics and government in the United States and around the world drive sports, and they always will.
Take a look at Afghanistan: It was the Soviet invasion of the country that was the basis of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to stop Americans from competing in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The Soviets returned the favor in 1984, when Eastern European countries under Soviet influence and the USSR boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984.
Before that, twenty-five African countries used the Olympics as a forum for protest by boycotting the 1976 Montreal Summer Games because New Zealand’s rugby team had played a match in the apartheid state of South Africa. Arizona lost one Super Bowl — the January 31, 1993 contest — because NFL owners, with a heavy push from the NFL Players Association, did not like the fact that the state chose not to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
If Major League Baseball did move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix, it would not be precedent-setting, though it would be somewhat startling in that many athletes today are instructed to ignore the political climate. It’s not generally considered good for business for teams to discuss the issues of the day.
In January of 1965, a group of American Football League players took a political stand that has mostly been forgotten. Following the 1964 American Football League season, the league scheduled the fourth-annual AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans. The January 16, 1965 contest would have been the prelude to the city getting an American Football League team.
New Orleans was a football hotbed, and both the American Football League and National Football League were taking a close look at the city as a potential expansion site. The AFL apparently won the race to New Orleans, and a game was scheduled at Tulane Stadium. Dave Dixon headed the promotion and persuaded American Football League owners and players that it would be a good city for the match.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was now the law of the land, and New Orleans was going to welcome the AFL All-Stars — which included twenty-two African-American players — with open arms. Segregation and Jim Crow were part of the history books, and the city desperately wanted a professional team. After all, Syracuse had just played in the Sugar Bowl against LSU and had eight African-American players on the team without incident. New Orleans seemed the perfect spot to host both the All-Star Game and a professional football team.
It didn’t turn out that way, according to Abner Haynes, a former Kansas City Chiefs running back. Haynes had been a civil rights pioneer as one of the first two African-Americans to play college football in Texas.
“Clem and I decided to fly out to the game,” Haynes said. “I didn’t know what to expect; Mr. [Lamar] Hunt [the Kansas City Chiefs owner and American Football League founder] said there would be no problems.”
The American Football League was really an experiment in the sports world. It was the only league at the time to truly embrace the African-American athlete as an equal on the field with white players. Major League Baseball struggled with integration, even through the 1950s. And the NFL’s Washington Redskins did not employ a black player until 1962.
“One of the things we [the AFL] needed was the unity of the white and black players for our new league,” said Haynes. “When the white players, Jack Kemp, Jerry Mays who was our [Kansas City] defensive leader and four or five other guys heard about what was happening, their character showed and my teammates were looking after me.”
The idea of a boycott of New Orleans didn’t take shape until the players met at the Roosevelt Hotel and started sharing stories. It’s worth noting that neither Haynes nor Daniels was able to hail a cab at the airport to take them down to the city. They waited for about two hours before someone finally picked them up and took them to the hotel. Once they got there, things didn’t get much better.
“They had a woman operating the elevator and she said, ‘you monkeys come on in and get to the back.’ […] Finally we had about 10 or 12 guys in my room, we were talking sensibly, we were going to stay together. This was just another test,” he said.
The thought of a boycott of the game came up, and the discussion quickly grew serious, with Buffalo’s Cookie Gilchrest being one of the most vocal leaders.
“We were disrespected as men,” Haynes remembered. “We were not here because of color, we were here because of talent. Why should we go out there and put our lives on the line for people who don’t appreciate us? We were not appreciated here. Everyone agreed, you should not put your life on the line in that type of situation.”
Pro football in 1965 does not in any way resemble pro football in 2010. The players acted alone and took a stand. There were no agents warning the players of possible and probable repercussions if there was a boycott of the game. There were not any worries about losing endorsements because the players had no endorsements at the time. They players took the action because they felt it was a correct and principled fight. They got support from their white teammates, including Jack Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback who headed the American Football league Players Association. Kemp, Ron Mix, Jim Tyrer, Freddie Arbanas and the other white players put their careers on the line, as did the African-American players. There was no safety net for any of them, and they could have all been fired for their actions.
“They were first good men,” said Haynes of everyone involved with the boycott. “They gave a damn, they stood up, people I am extremely proud of.”
The boycott was not about sports. It was about society and conditions in New Orleans for nearly two-dozen African-American players. The New Orleans boycott came after Civil Rights actions throughout the South and after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights legislation. But, oddly enough, civil rights leaders never contacted Haynes or his teammates, as far as he could tell.
“We had no leverage,” Haynes said. “We weren’t playing for money, but we were playing for progress. Football players took the lead. Places like Atlanta, New Orleans, [and] Miami were death holes. Grayson couldn’t get a drink at the bar. Our white teammates [in New Orleans] were there for us.”
Haynes did not know at the time that Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams was in contact with some of the players and offered an alternative site for the game: Houston.
On January 11, 1965, the league moved the game.
The AFL players stood up and staged the first sports boycott of a city, New Orleans. The players received tacit support from Hunt, Adams and the rest of the American Football League owners. There seemed to be no retribution for ruining the New Orleans game and the possible expansion fee revenues that would have been split up by the eight owners, which might have come out to somewhere between $500,000 and a million dollars for each owner. That was big money in 1965.
“That was the toughest thing that happened to me,” said Haynes. “We stood up; we shocked the nation. Our white teammates stood up. It was amazing the league moved the game. Stuff like that didn’t happen. Hunt took us to dinner, Stram, the Chiefs All-Stars, but never addressed the issue.”
Haynes did say he thought all the players were “kind of marked,” but none of the players was blackballed.
New Orleans eventually did get a football team in 1966, though only after some political intervention. The two leagues, the AFL and NFL, decided that they could no longer financially compete for players and worked out a merger. The marriage needed congressional blessing, and there were two prominent members of Congress — Louisiana Senator Russell Long and Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs — who didn’t think the merger served the best interests of Louisiana because New Orleans had no team. Both Long and Boggs eventually votes ‘yes’ after NFL Commissioner promised them New Orleans would eventually get a team.
To those on Facebook and to Phil Jackson, there is a lesson to be learned here: You cannot keep politics out of sports.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and a lecturer on “The Politics of Sports Business” and can be reached for speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org