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How civil rights movement made Super Bowl possible

Quarterback Russell WilsSeattle Seahawks holds Vince Lombardi Trophy following victorySunday  over Denver Broncos. (Timothy  A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy following the victorySunday over the Denver Broncos. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Super Bowl is our national festival. Some 70 percent of all TVs were tuned to the game last night. Each of the last four Super Bowls set a new record for the most watched show in history. More women watch the Super Bowl than men and women combined watch the Academy Awards. Advertisers pay billions to peddle their wares. The halftime features American flags, children’s choirs and tributes to our military. The players are so big that Tim Tebow is featured in an ad because he doesn’t have a contract.

Why is this spectacle so captivating? This is a time when Americans create their own communities, select from hundreds of channels, pick their own Facebook friends, select their own music and search out their own sources of information.

Why does the Super Bowl transcend this? One reason, of course, is the violent competition itself. But more importantly, the Super Bowl brings us all together to root for players on the basis of the color of their jerseys. As Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of NFL Media put it, “At a time of division in the rest of life, by socioeconomics, by race, by class, by gender, every which way that people tend to get divided by, the NFL cuts through a lot of that. Everyone you know is cheering for a team. There are very few things like that right now.”

What are the roots of this unifying festival? In many ways, it is a product of the civil rights movement. Sounds odd, but think about it.

Without the civil rights movement, segregation would have blocked the inclusion of the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. Integrated teams would have been controversial, if not impossible. A national playoff would have broadcast our divisions, not our unity.

It took the civil rights movement to bring down the cotton curtain of legal segregation, free the new South and unify America across the Mason-Dixon line.

The owners didn’t push this transformation. League officials didn’t force it. Brave men and women who risked their lives to make America better created it.

Similarly, players gained free agency not by the generosity of the owners nor the foresight of league officials. Free agency was forced by a star baseball player, Curt Flood, a St. Louis Cardinal who refused a trade to Philadelphia and sacrificed much of his athletic career to challenge, in the courts, a system that he said treated athletes like chattel slaves. Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court, but his challenge helped force the changes that ended with Congress passing the Curt Flood Act in 1998 that formally forced owners to compete in negotiating player contracts.

These victories are America’s true triumph. Our Constitution provides sufficient small “d” democratic space for people to mobilize, organize and make the country better. That’s worth remembering when we watch the Super Bowl and root for different teams, not caring about the race or religion or region of the players.

And it’s worth remembering as a nation as we turn to addressing Martin Luther King’s unfinished business — the need for economic justice, not just racial inclusion. In a society where the richest 1 percent is capturing 95 percent of the income growth, while working families are struggling to stay afloat, inequality surely is, as President Obama stated, the “defining challenge of our time.”

But enlightened bankers, or generous CEOs, won’t rectify it. Politicians acting on their own won’t fix it. We will rebuild an economy that works for the many and not just the few only when people decide it is time for change, and begin to organize and mobilize and march and demand that change. What the Super Bowl and the new South show is that change can bring us together economically, not drive us apart socially.



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