During Pro Bowl weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, NFL players enjoyed table service at some of the city’s swankiest nightclubs. Car services made it easy for them to move between parties. Greater Phoenix’s entire service industry was at the disposal of these giants of the biggest business in sports.
Yet there was a time when not all Pro Bowlers enjoyed the amenities of their outsized place within American society.
In January 1965, 21 Black American Football League players boycotted that league’s All-Star game in New Orleans, due to racism.
Almost fifty years before Black NBA players threatened to boycott games if Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, wasn’t banned from the league over racially insensitive remarks he made to his mistress, these football players went through with their demands to be treated like men.
That same Bourbon Street that now annually hustles through more than 500,000 mostly Black Essence Fest participants over July 4th weekend, was home to several clubs that refused entry to Black AFL players.
Earl Faison, a San Diego Chargers defensive lineman on the AFL West team, told NFL Films about an encounter he had with a Bourbon Street club owner.
“A guy pulls out a gun and says, ‘You are not coming in here. You niggers are not coming in here.’ ”
Game organizers had promised the players that they would have an enjoyable experience in the Crescent City. A group of local white business leaders calling themselves the Pro Football Club had formed in the early 1960s to energize an effort to bring a NFL team to New Orleans. The All-Star game was an audition for the NFL.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured that African-Americans had the right to use public accommodations, such as hotels, water fountains and bathrooms. But organizers couldn’t control the actions of some white business owners, who were determined to resist federal authority.
Frustrated but emboldened to defend their civil rights, the Black players refused to play the All-Star game as long as it was held in New Orleans.
“The American Football League is progressing in great strides, and the Negro players feel they are playing a vital role in the league’s progression,” said Buffalo Bills tight end Ernie Warlick.
“They are being treated fairly in all cities in the league. However, because of adverse conditions and discriminatory practices experienced by Negro players while here in New Orleans, the players feel they cannot perform 100 percent as expected in the All-Star Game and be treated differently.”
New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro said that these players had “done themselves and their race a disservice” by pulling out of the game, arguing that they must be “aware that you cannot change human nature overnight.”
A few weeks earlier on New Year’s Day at the Sugar Bowl, an integrated Syracuse team lost to LSU 13-10 before 60,000 spectators at Tulane Stadium. This was the first time Black players had been in the game since 1956, when the all-white Georgia Tech team met Pittsburgh, which had Bobby Grier, the first Black to play in the bowl game.
Ultimately, the 1965 AFL All-Star game was moved to Houston, where five days after the players took a stand against racism in New Orleans, the West beat the East 38-14 at the Jeppesen Stadium.
The All-Star game debacle led to the formation of the New Orleans Human Relations Committee to deal with the city’s rampant racism in public accommodations.
In late 1966, New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise.
The AFL All-Star game boycott didn’t turn New Orleans into a model of racial harmony, but it did force the city to redouble its efforts to make the city more appealing for its future in professional sports and tourism.
The state of Arizona would not have likely been able to host the 2015 Pro Bowl and Super Bowl and subsequent Super Bowls in the state had it not passed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day legislation. The state lost Super Bowl XXVII in 1990 after voters rejected the holiday in a ballot initiative. Arizona wasn’t awarded Super Bowl XXX until the state’s voters made MLK Day an official state holiday in 1993.