Buffaloed Soldiers

An Arizona group honoring historic black U.S. military units says the National Football League reneged on an agreement to let the organization present the American flag during Super Bowl XXX pregame ceremonies.

"We were going to be the color guard forthe pregame-show national anthem," says former U.S. Marine Corps colonel Chuck Long, founder and chief executive of the Phoenix-based America's Buffalo Soldiers.

Long says a pregame ceremony plan that appeared to have been finalized early in December was changed just before Christmas.

"On December 22, I received a phone call in Texas that the Pentagon had decided to accept an offer from the NFL to get involved with the pregame show," Long says.

NFL officials decided to contact the Department of Defense and ask for its input on the Super Bowl pregame ceremonies soon after it was announced that U.S. troops were going to be stationed in Bosnia, says Jim Steeg, NFL executive director of special events.

"We asked their advice--given the thing going on in Bosnia--what they thought was the right way to do it, and we took their recommendation," says Steeg.

The Defense Department advised that acolor guard representing the five military branches--the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard--should present the flag, Steeg says.

The NFL now plans to allow the Arizona National Guard to select the color guard from active and reserve military units based in Arizona.

The Defense Department has a different version of the events leading up to the selection of a pregame color guard.

A Pentagon spokesman says the military never provided any recommendations to the NFL concerning the pregame ceremony. Instead, spokesman Michael Byers says, the Pentagon merely accepted a request by the NFL to provide the color guard, as well as an overflight of Air Force planes.

"We would not be involved in approving or canceling or anything else having to do with the pregame ceremony," Byers says. "They asked us to provide an honor guard."

America's Buffalo Soldiers is a volunteer organization dedicated to commemorating the contributions of blacks to the U.S. military during the 19th and early 20th centuries. All-black infantry and cavalry units--nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers--were commanded by white officers until 1878.

The Buffalo Soldiers played an important role in the settling of the West and helped construct numerous fortifications, including Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona. The Buffalo Soldiers served in military campaigns between 1866 and 1913. The first black to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy, Henry Flipper, was placed in command of the Arizona 10th Cavalry unit in 1878.

At first, Long says, the NFL was excited about having the Buffalo Soldiers present the flag at the Super Bowl. That enthusiasm stemmed, at least in part, from the controversy surrounding the league's decision to remove the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona, after voters in 1990 rejected the creation of an official state holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday was approved by voters in 1992.

"We felt very good about the fact that the NFL was giving the opportunity to recognize a part of American history that has not been very well told," Long says.

America's Buffalo Soldiers contacted the NFL last January; several discussions were held during the year concerning their role in the event. Long says the group was told on December 9 to schedule rehearsals for the flag-presentation ceremonies for the Super Bowl, which will be played January 28 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.

During a December meeting, however, Long says the NFL's pregame-show director, Bob Best, indicated the league had contacted the Defense Department seeking input on the pregame ceremony.

"Best said to me, 'We've got one hitch,'" Long says. "And I said, 'What's that?'

"'We are a little concerned about Bosnia,'" Long says Best replied.
Best, director of Best Productions in Tampa, Florida, confirms the U.S. military presence in Bosnia was the deciding factor in selecting an armed-forces honor guard over the Buffalo Soldiers.

"We are going to have 20,000 troops stationed in Bosnia at the time the Super Bowl takes place, and it would be fitting during the playing ofthe national anthem that we have the armed forces represented as the color guard," Best says.

Best denies that there was ever an agreement with the Buffalo Soldiers for that group to do the opening ceremony. "Nothing was promised to anybody," Best says.

The NFL's Steeg also says the league never made a firm commitment to the Buffalo Soldiers regarding the pregame ceremony.

"We had never given them any kind of yes, no or maybe," Steeg says. "We said it was under consideration."

Long says the members of the Buffalo Soldiers color guard who would have presented the flag are all veterans of the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. He says the NFL could have had a military color guard and honored the Buffalo Soldiers at the same time.

The Buffalo Soldiers, however, would have appeared in historical cavalry uniforms, Best noted.

Best has directed the pregame ceremonies for the past 11 Super Bowls, including the 1991 game in Tampa on the eve of a ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. The opening ceremony for that game included a rousing, emotional rendition of the national anthem, sung by Whitney Houston.

"When you look at the national anthem, you have to ask what would be good for the nation," Best says.

Honoring the little-known historic black military units that served their nation with distinction apparently isn't good enough for the NFL, says Michael Pops, a Phoenix black community leader.

"It's a shame.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty