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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has until Saturday to either veto, sign or let become law a bill that would allow businesses in her state to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people based on the religious beliefs of the business owner. The NFL is among those watching closely.
Super Bowl XLIX is scheduled for Feb. 1 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. The NFL has stopped short of saying the game could be moved elsewhere if the legislation becomes law, but the league has moved a Super Bowl out of Arizona before, and the implicit threat floats invisibly but menacingly in the desert sky.
The controversy comes as the NFL is readying to welcome its first openly gay player in Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive end who came out this month, and just as Jason Collins played his first game for the NBA's Brooklyn Nets as the first openly gay active player in one of the nation's four major sports leagues.
"The NFL is putting a lot of pressure on the governor (behind the scenes) to veto the bill, from what I can tell," Sam's public relations representative, Howard Bragman, told USA TODAY Sports. "I know the host committee has said, 'Veto it.' And I know the Arizona Cardinals have said, 'Veto it.' I know the NFL is very concerned and watching this very closely."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said by e-mail: "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."
Comment from others is plentiful. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said the NFL should consider moving the game if the bill becomes law. The Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee said passage of the bill would deal a significant blow to the state's economic growth potential. And Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player who is executive director of the LGBT activist group You Can Play, said he also hoped the NFL would move the game should the bill become law.
"You know why?" Davis said. "Because let's say that Michael Sam is on the team that's going to the Super Bowl -- what is he supposed to do? Not go around and eat? And there are other people in the front office who may have to work in Arizona for the Super Bowl. But I'm a firm believer that the NFL's going to do the right thing."
Asked if the NFL should suspend Cardinals home games if the bill becomes law, Davis said, "I don't know. I would hope that they would.
"But I think that we also have to do a good job of not just pointing the finger at the NFL. There's a baseball team there. There's a basketball team there. There are corporations there. We should put pressure on Coke and Pepsi and everyone and not just expect the NFL, as one separate entity, to do all the heavy lifting."
The potential collision between state politics and the NFL comes in the form of SB 1062. (SB stands for Senate bill, not Super Bowl.) The bill comes out of a New Mexico legal battle involving a wedding photographer who told a lesbian couple she would not photograph their commitment ceremony in 2006 because it clashed with her religious beliefs. The photographer was sued for sexual-orientation discrimination and lost in the New Mexico Supreme Court.
The Arizona bill was written by the conservative-advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom. The bill would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against lawsuits. Supporters say it would tweak existing state religious-freedom laws intended to ensure individuals and business owners are not forced to go against their own beliefs.
Many prominent leaders in the Arizona business community oppose the bill. They sent a letter to Brewer urging her to veto the bill because it would expose businesses to a higher risk of lawsuits and hurt efforts to attract workers.
"The legislation is also already clearly having a negative effect on our tourism industry, one of the largest sectors of the economy," said the letter signed by presidents of several business groups, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Shades of MLK Day stir
It's back to the future for Arizona. In 1990, then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threatened to move the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona if the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Voters turned thumbs down on the holiday, and the NFL moved the game to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Arizona subsequently voted to recognize MLK Day in 1992, and the 1996 Super Bowl was played at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium.
In that case, the NFL had three years' lead time to relocate the Super Bowl from Arizona. The coming Super Bowl is about 11 months away. Is that enough time to make a switch should the NFL choose to do so?
Former NFL executive Jim Steeg, director of the Super Bowl for 26 years, thinks it is. "If we want, anything can be done," he said, "given what it is."
When the events of 9/11 pushed the Super Bowl back a week after the 2001 season, Super Bowl host New Orleans had a conflict because of a national automobile dealers convention. Steeg said the NFL considered moving the game to Miami with talks as late as October -- "so that gave us 120 days to try to put that together" -- before the auto dealers swapped dates with the NFL.
Steeg said he thought Tagliabue's threat to move the game caused some Arizona residents to vote against the holiday. "It's a unique base of people," Steeg said. "They're the Wild West. And they don't want to be told what to do."
He said he thought Arizona voters changed their minds by 1992 because they saw the impact of the Super Bowl. "And it wasn't just the Super Bowl, it was all the businesses were scared," he said. "Because their primary business is hospitality and travel and entertainment. When conventions started pulling out, it was a whole other thing."
The current situation differs as it is a Senate bill rather than a public referendum. And the clock will tick all week as Brewer decides what to do.
Pressure on many levels
Bragman, whose firm Fifteen Minutes represented Sam at the NFL scouting combine, said among the factors that had energized the gay community of late were the Russian anti-gay laws that were one of the central controversies of the Sochi Games.
"If the governor signs this bill, the NFL would be under tremendous pressure to move this on many, many levels," Bragman said. "I just hope the governor is wise enough to see that this is a really unfortunate bill, a really sad precedent."
You Can Play is dedicated to taking homophobia out of sports. One of its co-founders is Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, son of Brian Burke, president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. Davis is You Can Play's executive director.
"What excites me is that the NFL's already issued a statement that they're keeping a close eyeball on this," Davis said while citing the Super Bowl that was moved out of Arizona in the 1990s. "So there's a precedent there, and the NFL understands it's important in playing a role in the idea of supporting human rights. It's really exciting to be a family member of the NFL and to be attached to an organization that I really believe takes this seriously."
The NFL partners with You Can Play on its "High Five Initiative," through which pro athletes visit LGBT youth organizations.
Davis said it would take a groundswell of corporations and local businesses, not just the NFL and the promise of a Super Bowl, "to push Jan Brewer to make sure that legislation is not enacted."
He said the Arizona bill, and similar measures under consideration in other states, were not all that surprising in the push and pull of history.
"For some reason, it's a part of our culture that if we have progress in one direction there's a regression in another," Davis said. "What I find is that we really have a tough time as a country just seeing humanity and seeing that everyone in this country is each other's mirror and they reflect back on ourselves. If I look at you, I will see more alike than I will see different in you. I think we just haven't done a good job in society of seeing each other as brothers and sisters."
Contributing: Laurie Merrill and Peter Corbett of The (Phoenix) Arizona Re public.