NFL Can Learn From Former Commissioner How to Truly Honor Martin Luther King Jr.

On Monday, the NFL honored the memory of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by placing “MLK” decals on the back of helmets.

Players for the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals, in their Super Wild Card Weekend game on Monday night, wore the decals, along with the messages “BE LOVE” or “END HATE,” ending the day the country recognizes as a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It was a nice, tame gesture, better than doing nothing, but not by much. At a time when the league saw two minority head coaches fired in the past 10 days, leaving just one, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, in a league of 32 teams — and with voting rights for minorities in the United States under siege like never before since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — helmet decals seemed about as empty a gesture as a league with such influence could muster.

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue understands this.

On Monday, Tagliabue joined forces with several prominent coaches and former star athletes with connections to the state of West Virginia — including Alabama coach Nick Saban and NBA legend Jerry West — signing a letter to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, urging support for the passage of voting rights legislation that was poised for a full Senate vote this week.

Whether the letter will have the desired effect is not known, but it was a bold stroke put forth by a man willing to put his name and prestige on the line to affect change. It is hardly the first time for Tagliabue. It is a lesson the current NFL could learn once again.

In 1991, Tagliabue threw the weight of the NFL into forcing societal change

Paul Tagliabue was a champion of social justice as NFL commissioner
Art Shell and Paul Tagliabue | Ron Schwane-Pool/Getty Images

Tagliabue succeeded Pete Rozelle as NFL Commissioner in 1989. At the time, the NFL had just one minority head coach, Art Shell, the former Oakland Raiders standout hired by owner Al Davis to become the first minority head coach in the modern era of the NFL.

It was under Tagliabue’s leadership as commissioner that the NFL saw significant growth in head coaching diversity, although it took the league until 2003 to truly enact change with the implementation of the “Rooney Rule,” which required teams with coaching vacancies to interview minority candidates. At the time the Rooney Rule came into being, the NFL had never had more than three minority head coaches in any one season. By the time Tagliabue stepped down as commissioner in 2006, the league had progressed to seven minority head coaches.

But where Tagliabue really threw the weight of NFL power, money, and prestige into social justice reform came early in his tenure, ironically over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. When the state of Arizona voted in November 1990 not to make MLK Day a paid holiday, Tagliabue and the league responded by pulling the planned 1993 Super Bowl out of the state and awarding it to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

It was a seismic and nearly unprecedented move, costing the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona upwards of $250 million in revenue.

Arizona got the message. Voters in the state approved the paid holiday in 1992, and the league awarded the state the Super Bowl for 1996.

In recent years, professional leagues have made decisive moves in the name of justice

Tagliabue’s stand against the state of Arizona was not forgotten by leaders of other sports entities when regressive laws were passed in other states. In 2015, the Indiana-based NCAA threatened to pull further events like the men’s basketball tournament from the state after it passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act that threatened the civil liberties of the LGBTQ community.

When the state of North Carolina passed its anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in 2016, the NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte in protest. And last year, Major League Baseball responded to Georgia’s passage of restrictive voting laws by yanking the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta and playing it in Colorado.

“I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB draft,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said last April in announcing the move. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”

Greater coaching diversity, not helmet decals, is how the NFL can honor Dr. King

Under Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell, the league has not been nearly as aggressive in the pursuit of societal change. On issues of domestic violence, the league has stumbled badly, as evidenced by its handling of the Ray Rice controversy in 2014.

When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality, the league wavered in the face of criticism over his protest, and when his contract with the San Francisco 49ers expired after the 2017 season, he was effectively blackballed from the league.

But where the NFL has really regressed is in minority hiring. After the firings last week of Houston Texans head coach David Culley and Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, the league finds itself with just one Black head coach in Tomlin. In a league where nearly 60% of the players identify as Black or African American, having just one head coach out of 32 is intolerable.

If the league truly wants to honor Martin Luther King Jr., every day, not just on his holiday, look back at what was accomplished under Tagliabue.

Deeds, not decals.

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