Sugar Bowl Committee Melts Under Pressure

Women elected to prestigious positions


By Melinda Shelton


NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey, top right, represented NOW at the Women's Institute on Sport and Education's National Girls and Women in Sport Hall of Fame awards banquet.  NOW was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  A special lifetime achievement award was also presented to former NOW President Molly Yard.  Pictured, seated, from the left are Carolyn Thompson,Yard, and Kathy Kemp.  Standing, from the left, are Sue Mottinger, Laurel Dagnon, executive director of the Women's Institute and Dempsey.

Women scored a sweet victory in mid-September when the prestigious Sugar Bowl Committee in New Orleans succumbed to pressure from NOW activists and other civil rights leaders to elect its first women members.

 The committee voted to expand its membership from 99 to 105 members, which automatically included the three women and three African American men who failed to garner enough votes in a June election.

 "It took outside pressure from NOW and other groups to make the committee members realize their 61 years of sexism, cronyism and bigotry are up," said Greater New Orleans NOW President Ivory Madison. "This is the sweetest victory the Sugar Bowl has ever had, but the fight is far from over."

 Prior to that breakthrough, the politically and financially powerful committee had repeatedly rejected female nominees. Under threat of a lawsuit, it elected the first African American men as members in 1973, but had limited their number to eight until the September action, according to Madison.

 The Sugar Bowl was the only one of the five major bowls -- including the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Rose bowls -- to exclude women from committee membership. In fact, a woman is president of the Fiesta Bowl Committee.

 NOW joined efforts to diversify the Sugar Bowl Committee and end its gender discrimination because the bowl receives state funding, and its offices and events are located in the Superdome, which receives state and city support.

NOW's efforts escalated in June, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that several women nominated for membership were rejected. Madison wrote a letter to the bowl's executive committee objecting to its all-male, predominantly white membership and included a list of potential female nominees.

 Next Madison planned and publicized an Aug. 1 press conference at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency at which NOW President Patricia Ireland, Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Rev. Joseph Lowry and local civil and women's rights activists would publicly denounce the Sugar Bowl committee's exclusionary practices.

 On July 31, bowl executives requested an emergency meeting with Madison. She said executives told her they had a secret "plan" for gender and racial diversification, "but they said they couldn't discuss specifics." The discussion was quite heated at times, Madison said, and bowl executives "accused us of wanting to wreck New Orleans' economy."

 They requested that the press conference be cancelled. Ireland also spoke with Sugar Bowl executives but told them the press conference would proceed as scheduled. She stood irm in her criticism of the committee's gender discrimination.

 "Having locked out more than half the population, rich and powerful men on the committee enjoy the exclusive privileges of membership and maintain control over the multi-million dollar Sugar Bowl events," Ireland said. "Sugar Bowl members broker vendor deals, television coverage and advertising, hotel and travel packages -- all generating an estimated $100 million into the New Orleans economy."

 Pressure mounted when Carl Galmon, a NOW ally and president of The Louisiana State Committee Against Apartheid, filed suit against the Sugar Bowl Association in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Sept. 6. The suit cites gender and race discrimination "extending from the selection of members to the Nokia Sugar Bowl Committee to the selection of vendors from whom goods and services are purchased."

 The Sugar Bowl Committee is the governing body for the Nokia Sugar Bowl Association, which sponsors major sporting events such as the bowl football game for top-ranked collegiate football teams, a world-class 10-K road race and a collegiate basketball tournament. Nokia, the Sugar Bowl's major corporate sponsor, is a foreign-based electronics company with strong business ties in Louisiana.

 Shortly after the suit was filed, the Sugar Bowl executive committee voted to expand its membership. Madison intends to press for more changes in the Sugar Bowl Association's bylaws and business practices.

 "The bylaws were designed for rich, white men and their sons, and nepotism obviously is written in," Madison said. "Committee memberships are for life, so unless the committee votes to expand its membership again or when more members literally die, we will have only three women and 11 African Americans out of 105 members. We intend to press for bylaws revisions to include a cap on membership terms and gender and racial equality that reflects our community.

 "Tokenism is unacceptable, which is what we now have. Also, we have to maintain constant vigilance to make sure the women stay on the committee and get full voting privileges at the end of their two-year, associate member term."

 Galmon said he is not dropping the suit because he considers the committee's actions to be "a smokescreen."

 "The election was clearly done in hopes of neutralizing the suit, but that's not going to happen," Galmon said. "Women are the majority of the population in New Orleans, as are African Americans, and the committee should reflect that. The bottom line is money: How many contracts are awarded to women and African Americans and how do they benefit?"

 Madison said she and other NOW activists are investigating Sugar Bowl Association finances, its sponsorship of women's sports events and its community contributions.
 
 


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