The most amazing aspect of extravaganzas like the Super Bowl is the extent to which the pageantry numbs, often obliterates, reality. So many private parties. Dances. Mountains of food. After a week of watching the wealthy and the near-wealthy, the notion of poverty becomes an abstract concept. Many of the rich never felt the sting of poverty, the former poor don’t want to feel it again, so the subject rarely comes up.
Today’s game marks the seventh Super Bowl in Miami, the first since 1989 when a Miami police officer fatally shot a black motorcyclist, whose passenger died in the resulting crash. Three days of rioting followed during the week leading up to the game.
The NFL was shaken in 1989 but didn’t immediately grasp the implication. Didn’t realize that what happened in 1989 was part of a 10-year war in Miami that began in 1980 with the acquittal of four white police officers on manslaughter charges in the beating death of a 33-year-old black motorcyclist.
The acquittal set off three days of rioting in Liberty City that left 18 dead, 400 injured and about $100 million in damage. In 1982, unrest erupted in the Overtown section after the fatal shooting of a black man by Cuban-born police officer. In 1984, Miami exploded again when the officer was acquitted.
Unrest in Los Angeles before Super Bowl XXVII finally got the league’s attention. Suddenly it registered with league officials that many of the players came from areas like South Central L.A. and Overtown. They saw the relations -if only in a business sense - between the survival of the product and the urgency of social action.
Five years later, the NFL returns to Miami with a more realistic, if not expanded, social consciousness. The league recently reached an agreement with the Players Association that would put $6 million into youth programs and programs that will benefit former players.
On Wednesday, the league announced a commitment of $2 million for its third Youth Education Training facility. The center provides organized athletic activities and also provides computers and tutors in basic academic skills.
The first center was built three years ago in Los Angeles, the second was committed last year in Atlanta though construction has not begun. The newest center will be constructed in Gwen Cherry Park in Liberty City.
After taking much criticism, Paul Tagliabue, the league’s commissioner, said the NFL wants to identify the most effective means of contributing.
Asked about the NFL’s social responsibility, Tagliabue said: “Having a unique impact with something like YETcenters rather than doling out funds is a key part of our philosophy.
“We see young people, the mix of education and athletes, as a focal area. The other piece is the concept of partnership - with private sector, the public sector and the players.”
How much is enough? Should the NFL do more?
Drive through impoverished areas, here or in Los Angeles, Appalachia, rural Georgia. The answer becomes apparent: There’s never enough. The question is how much can you afford to give?
Rather than focusing on the league, the players should step forward and give more, not individually but in a collective sense.
When professional leagues in baseball, football and basketball are dominated by black athletes, you’d think there would be a vested interest in a assuming greater social responsibility.
In many cases, the willingness does exist. Individual players say they are interested in doing more. Many come from places like Overtown, where the difference between making it and not making it is a helping hand and a firm nudge forward.
The magnitude of the challenge is greater than one individual’s ability to solve it. It’s amazing that black professional athletes, given all the issues of image and responsibility, have failed to form an association that crosses boundaries of individual sports.
Players’ unions act in the best for the majority of their members, although much time is taken up with labor issues.
Issues peculiar to African-American and other minority athletes are not a priority. Minority-group lawyers, doctors, architects, journalists belong not only to their respective professional organizations but also to subgroups that address their own specialized needs.
Minority-group athletes are the only professionals with no such association. Potentially they are a powerful group whenever they do organize.
H.T. Smith, an attorney in Miami, plans to initiate a series of meetings with Miami Heat, Panthers, Dolphins and Marlins players to do just that.
Smith organized the so-called quiet riot, an economic boycott, that began here in July 1990 after the city refused to honor Nelson Mandela, the South African president, upon his release from prison.
The boycott lasted three years and ended with a series of economic concessions by the city to the black community: $2 million deposited in a black-owned bank, an agreement to pave the way for a black-owned hotel and a commitment to bring blacks into the economic mainstream.
Smith wants to bring black professional athletes into the mainstream, too. Not in piecemeal fashion but as part of a collective.
The NFL can hold increasingly elaborate functions, and no one will be offended. The issue is not the banquet, but the bank.