The NFL and Arizona – the intersection of business and civil rights.

This week was filled with good news.  It started when word came out that a federal judge declared Texas’  ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.  If you’re keeping score, that makes 16 states (plus D.C.) which allow gay marriage, and another 10 which give partial or full benefits for civil union.  Texas joins 5 other states in the process of changing their marriage laws.  To steal a term my friend Becky coined, the U.S. is definitely trending towards unscrimination.

Also, and I think equally surprising, it was announced that Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed the regressive gay discrimination bill passed by the state congress last week.  The bill allowed businesses to refuse service if doing so put an undue burden on their religious beliefs.  Gov. Brewer, in a departure from her usual crazy, refused to sign the bill, saying it, “could result in unintended and negative consequences.”  As J.T. Eberhard put it, if the intended consequence – limiting the rights of gay people – is negative, who the hell cares what the unintended consequences were.  And this is just speculation on my part, but I imagine that the unintended consequences have something to do with the fact that the law would have to apply equally to all religious beliefs, not just christianity.

Brewer, however, couldn’t ignore the immense pressure applied by both social justice groups and businesses.  Apple, AT&T, Delta Airlines, and other companies publicly criticized the bill, claiming they could be subjected to boycotts and discrimination lawsuits.  The potential economic impact of passing the bill was so dire that even conservatives like Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain opposed it.

The NFL was was also involved with putting pressure on Arizona.  Rumors abounded that the league was considering moving the Super Bowl, which is scheduled to be played in Phoenix next winter.  While the league never specifically commented on the bill itself, they did release this statement:

“Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. 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 Arizona Cardinals and the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee also both released statements urging Brewer to reject the bill.

The NFL is no stranger to using the Super Bowl as a political club.  They pulled the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona, and moved it to Los Angeles after voters in the state rejected a referendum to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a state holiday.  When the league voted to award Super Bowl XXVII to Arizona in 1990, they did so knowing full well that there was an upcoming vote about MLK Day.  The board decided in favor of Arizona with the caveat that if the state rejected the referendum, the board would pull the Super Bowl and find a different location.

The motivation for such a move was clear.  The league was made up of a majority of black players who didn’t want to support a state who refused to celebrate MLK day. The current situation isn’t an exact parallel; there certainly isn’t a majority of gay players in the league.  But considering how the league has taken a few black eyes on gay rights issues recently, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that they wanted to make a bold statement to show they’re not against homosexuality.

The NFL made stand here which I wholeheartedly support.  This law was designed to protect the people who discriminate rather than the people who are discriminated against.  I’m glad it got vetoed, and I hope all the other similar bills popping up around the country are also rejected.

However, I’m not entirely sure I’m okay with the precedent that the NFL is making here.  Sure, this time I agreed with their stance, but what happens when they use the Super Bowl as leverage to affect an issue that I don’t agree with?  What if they decided they were against unions or living wage?  If I were to call foul on the league in those hypotheticals, I certainly can’t praise them in this instance.  The idea that the NFL can use it’s popularity to influence politics seems a little scary to me.

At the same time, I certainly can’t forbid them from taking part in politics.  I never liked the Citizens United decision by the supreme court, and I think the influx of money in politics has had a serious detrimental effect.  However, one way in which corporations are people is that they get to decide their own course.

I can’t make the NFL give the Super Bowl to Arizona if they choose not to, nor should I be able to.  They must make decisions for their company that works best for them.  It’s harder for them now that the Super Bowl is so big that any decision they make about it could be considered political.  In that sense, they are almost a victim of their massive success.  Decisions they make have consequences that reach outside the league, but they still must be able to make those decisions.

Even though there are no active openly gay players in the NFL (at least until the draft, hopefully), that doesn’t mean there are no openly gay employees in the NFL.  The Super Bowl is a huge deal which takes a massive effort.  It’s perfectly reasonable for the NFL to decide that they don’t want any part of a state where some of their employees may be discriminated against.

Here’s the problem though.  If the NFL has the right to choose who they do business with, why don’t the business owners of Arizona deserve that same right?  Is it not inconsistent of me to laud the NFL for potentially pulling the Super Bowl because they want no part of Arizona while at the same time denouncing Arizona for giving it’s business owners the right to avoid doing business with people they don’t like?  What’s the difference?

There are those who think businesses should be allowed to discriminate, and not just on religious grounds.  According to some, business should be allowed to hang a sign on their door that says “No Blacks”.  Businesses should be able to decide that they want to exclude women.  They say we should allow the market to decide how we treat these businesses.  If people don’t like discrimination, they won’t go to stores that discriminate, which will solve the problem on it’s own.  Some have even gone as far as saying that if you’re discriminated against, you have the freedom to move somewhere else.  The point, though, is that the government shouldn’t be able to force people to do business with someone they don’t choose to.

I personally find that entire system abhorrent, and I think the era of segregation has proven the dangers of that system.  I don’t buy free market capitalism, I think it would only make the problems we have now much worse.  I prefer regulated capitalism – sometimes heavily regulated.  I think the government does have the job of stepping in and making sure everyone is treated fairly.  If you don’t want to do business with certain segments of the population, then you shouldn’t enter the public marketplace.

But these opinions are, for the purposes of this bill, irrelevant.  Title II of the Civil Rights Act made discrimination by businesses illegal, and that law has been upheld through numerous court challenges.  If the law applies, it should apply to everyone equally.  If discrimination based on gender, race, or creed is illegal, it should also be illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

That’s the key difference.  That’s why it’s okay for the NFL to choose not to work in a state that discriminates, but it’s not okay for a business to choose not to do business with a certain class of people.  That’s why, whatever her reasons were, Jan Brewer did the right thing by killing this bill.

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