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Beyond the Field : NFL Learned Lessons the Hard Way After ’89 Riots Near Miami; Now Urban Problems Aren’t Simply Out of Sight, Out of Mind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Super Bowl was never much about urban blight until blight pulled up a front-row seat at Miami in 1989.

That week, as the hired hands shucked oysters and peeled shrimp for the NFL party, a race riot broke out in the streets of nearby Overtown.

The Cincinnati Bengals watched the flames from their hotel rooms. Sportswriters got the rundown from cabbies on the ride in from the airport.

The league tiptoed into the embers, awkward and unarmed, knowing that the Super Bowl had never pretended to be anything more than the world’s largest Lazy Susan, a sumptuous buffet to be whirled from town to town.

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“We don’t say the Super Bowl is the end of the world,” Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner, once said. “But we feel it gives half the country a chance to think of something else other than our domestic troubles and our international troubles.”

So what happens when the real world crashes the party?

The NFL found out the hard way on the long road from Miami to Los Angeles.

In Miami, the league froze in the headlights.

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“The one big plus is that it’s early in the week,” Rozelle was moved to say after the outbreak.

The league walked blindly down this street.

True, it was an innocent bystander.

But when some in the NFL suggested that the leftover food from parties be donated to the cause, it came off as some stuffed shirt offering his table scraps.

To show it cared, the NFL whipped up a $5,000 educational grant that week to two deserving South Florida black high school seniors.

Five thousand? Gee, where does a league with a billion-dollar TV contract come up with that kind of money?

By the chance meeting of riot and game, the NFL discovered in Miami that a Super Bowl was more than a party and that all acts associated with the

game would--rightly or wrongly--become linked to the Super Bowl; that the league could not just come to town and dance on a few tables while the masses huddled.

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It learned that, with the world’s media assembled and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at stake in the community, the game was no longer just Rozelle’s “emotional outlet” and fish fry.

The NFL created this monster, Super Bowl, and it had to take responsibility for it.

It becomes more than sport when half the world is watching, and the revenues generated are staggering, and some of the players in today’s game grew up in the areas so often cordoned off by police ropes.

It’s more than frolic when the United States is knocking down Iraqi Scuds the week you’re getting ready for Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, and the local security threat is serious enough that helicopters hover over Tampa Stadium and the FBI roam and security men check every piece of media equipment through X-ray scanners.

It’s not funny when the word bomb is not being used to describe any long pass from quarterback to receiver.

It’s more than sport when Whitney Houston’s rendition of the national anthem--although lip-synced--meant more on that day in that stadium than at anytime perhaps since Francis Scott Key looked out over Chesapeake Bay.

Remember, before General Schwarzkopf, it was Super Bowl Sunday that silenced the guns.

“It’s one of the great ironies,” an NFL official said. “Out of the 100 days of war, that was the quietest day. It was like our guys said, ‘You bother us during the Super Bowl and we’ll blow you out of the sky.’ ”

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Slowly, like the gears of large machinery, the NFL cranked up to speed on social responsibility.

In Tampa, as war was waged, the league canceled its annual Friday night bash, judging wisely that spending a million dollars on assorted ice-carvers, fire-twirlers and bartenders might be inappropriate.

Yes, a game is more than a game when NFL fat cats can peddle the Super Bowl to the highest bidder at an annual beggars’ banquet, extracting the best deal possible for itself one minute and in the next delivering a political punch to the solar plexus of Phoenix, which would have had today’s game had it not botched up its position on the Martin Luther King holiday.

The Super Bowl is a political game, a lever and a pawn.

Last year in Minneapolis, it was the Indians who, despite sub-freezing temperatures, banged their drums slowly all night outside NFL headquarters to protest Washington’s use of the nickname “Redskins.”

Have a political cause? Get a sandwich board and head for the Super Bowl.

The NFL had no choice but to grow with the job.

This year, the NFL walked into our little buzz saw, Los Angeles.

This would be nothing like the league’s last Super Bowl visit to L.A., in 1987, at the height of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts. That was a rollicking, bottomless pit-of-a-week at Hotel California, punctuated by the all-time bash at Universal Studios, at which men in suits cavorted and swigged and jumped on stage to sing oldies with Bruce Willis.

This trip would have to be different, more somber, to match the general mood.

When the Phoenix bid fell through, the league awarded Super Bowl XXVII to Los Angeles in March, 1991, only days after George Holiday had turned his camcorder onto Rodney King.

As NFL planners prepared for game week, they had no choice but to reconsider L.A. in 1992.

Regrets, we had a few:

--April 29. The riots brought the city to its knees and, frankly, it has been a struggle to get up.

--Real Estate. Ask anyone who bought a house in 1989 about it.

--Acts of God. We had 16 earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or stronger, so we’ll understand if you want to catch the next flight out.

--Acts of government: The state went 63 days without a budget; the Los Angeles Unified School District remains in disarray as a February strike deadline looms.

We set records. Los Angeles led the nation in bank robberies. The county rang up 2,589 homicides. There were 800 gang-related killings in 1992, also a record.

If we are not already the carjacking capital of the nation, well, give us time.

We lost Magic Johnson, who retired from the Lakers. We lost the Dodgers, who retired from the National League West.

We lost spirit, resolve.

We got advice from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the transcendental-meditation guru most famous for taking the Beatles on retreat to India in the 1960s. Yogi took out an add in the local paper, claiming he could rid Los Angeles of crime for $165 million a year.

Such a deal.

He offered to bring in 9,000 of his closest friends--"coherence creating experts,” he called them--whom he insisted could hum and meditate and vibrate until everyone in L.A. dropped their arms and hugged each other.

Yo, Yogi: Take a hike.

Some of L.A.'s physical scars have healed. The smoke has cleared.

But there are still too many here who don’t think much has changed since the photo opportunities dried up.

They found it curious that Peter Ueberroth, a white male from Orange County, would take up the cause of Rebuild L.A., although he probably wishes now he was still the baseball commissioner.

A youth counselor in South-Central L.A. summed up his frustration about help that has been slow to come:

“It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace, and I don’t know what a community-based program is going to be able to do about talking to a youngster in the future if it blows wide open. They just might have to put a lid on it and let them do what they want to do. Kill a bunch of folks. They’re going to let it get back out of hand, when we had a golden opportunity to help a lot of these youngsters recover their lives.

“That’s where it is now. It will never be a black-on-black-gang problem like it was. A lot of it will be turned on society, bank-robbery increases, carjackings, you’ll see burglary increases. . . . This is a disaster, a crisis. We’re talking about black and brown man being an endangered species.

“Whenever there is an endangered species, for the condor, for the whales, help comes from everywhere. It just didn’t happen.”

Make no mistake. Los Angeles needed the energy of Super Bowl XXVII. God knows it needed the revenue.

What it did not need was indifference.

The Super Bowl has so long been a game of exclusion.

Los Angeles could not tolerate exclusion.

To its credit, the NFL did its homework this time.

Its actions extended beyond the popular press conferences this week that brought to light several acts of charity.

Monday, the Herculian efforts of former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams were detailed in announced plans to open Youth Education Town (YET), an educational and recreational center in riot-torn Compton, to be constructed just yards away from where a Taco Bell franchise had been burned in the riots.

Over the years, 109 current and former players have hailed from the 11 high schools in South-Central L.A.

Williams, a former city councilman in Cincinnati, pulled the YET project together in two months, and the NFL has made a commitment of $1 million over the next five years.

Williams would not say that the NFL came late to social responsibility, but did say, “I do feel that, with opportunity there is a responsibility to act.”

Other public acts of charity last week were inspiring. Country singer Garth Brooks donated $720,000 in concert proceeds to the YET project.

Brooks, from Yukon, Okla., was a hick out of his element as he stood on a podium in Compton, but he came through big-time in the clutch. He was asked only to sing the national anthem at today’s game, but insisted on doing more.

The NFL held clinics for inner-city kids. More than 700 minority children will be in today’s halftime show starring Michael Jackson.

But more telling of the NFL’s work behind the scenes:

--It was the NFL that landed Jackson, who at first wanted no part of the halftime gig, by donating $100,000 to his Heal the World Foundation. Other sponsors chipped in until donations totaled $2 million.

--Two weeks after the April uprising, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called a meeting in which he demanded that the league take the high road to Pasadena.

The NFL encouraged the formation of an ad hoc committee of local minority business leaders.

Those meetings produced a book, compiled by Kathy Mendenhall of the mayor’s office, which listed minority businesses hoping to bid for services to the Super Bowl. The jobs spanned the spectrum from technical to menial.

The NFL encouraged its contractors to come up with a list of needs of its own. It was Mendenhall’s challenge to match the local businesses with the needs of NFL contractors, such as Regency Productions, GTE, Radio City Music Hall, Party Planners West.

The mayor’s office reported last week that several minority contracts had been awarded, with more expected to be named as the game drew near.

All the printing done by the Super Bowl Host Committee was commissioned to minority businesses.

The Reggie Williams’ news conference was catered by Cookies By Connie, a Los Angeles bakery owned by Constance Bass, a member of the Black Business Assn.

The NFL got her name from the list.

Bass said she would have had no shot at the contract otherwise.

“I’m grateful for any kind of business,” she said. “Wherever, however.

Although the city could not force contractors to use the minority list, the NFL sent a list to all its contractors and reportedly did some arm-twisting.

Los Angeles also plans to use the business listing for the World Cup here next year.

There are miles to go on this trip, but it appears that the NFL has come a long way from Miami and 1989.

Change comes slowly. Maybe it took wrong turns down a few dark alleys for the Super Bowl to get the message.

“I always felt we were drifting into social responsibility over the last couple of years,” one league insider said. “With (the L.A. riots) happening, it really brought it to the forefront. The commissioner got committed to doing something about it. I think it will be a tradition we will carrying out at Super Bowl sites in the future.”

Next time, maybe Los Angeles can pick up the tab.


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