Revenge and backlash have always been the American response to defeat, especially in the civil rights case. Despite the resulting muddy, misdirection, and outrage, the Georgia voting bill that went into effect last month was clearly a response to the defeat, as was the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Sport has always been expected to provide some form of talc to help alleviate the effects of setbacks, the illusion that the Games reflect some national unity through their distractions – the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series. My team, your team, our country.
Through the lens of civics and values, sport as an industry has not handled the difficulties particularly well. The 20th century was the sports century, and within it the games enthusiastically condoned racism, homophobia, war, sexism, sexual abuse, police brutality, domestic violence, drug-enhancing drug use, nationalism and, in the case of college sports, enthusiastically. Exploitation of athletes for decades. However, the Games and those who run them have always been motivated by two main concerns: responding to the general sentiment of the country, and specifically responding to the concerns of corporate partners. Tyreek Hill didn’t hurt business, and so did Ray Rice. The infamous Arizona Immigration Act, which was incorporated into law in 2010, was a hideous bill, but Bud Selig and Baseball had no intention of basing spring training on displeasure. Major League Baseball, which removed the All-Star game from Georgia last week, is just the latest example of a league that is damaging its image through such a framework. It just so happened that damage control and right thing were one and the same thing in this case.
If baseball had played the All-Star Game in Atlanta – while honoring the late Henry Aaron – without really condemning the new law, it would have been an unnecessary risk. It would have been embarrassed to play its showcase in the off-season in a state that tried again to aggressively disenfranchise and suppress the black voices. It would have happened just a few months after the historic inclusion of Negro League player statistics in the mainstream record books. And it would have done so after pledging to no longer be a passive observer of the nation’s massive social upheavals.
Before the start of the season, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Black Lives Matter in a statement that the league would use its platform to actively push for social change. Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post / Getty Images
Had they stayed in Georgia, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and his sport would have been remembered as the sport that rewarded Georgia’s fiction – that the 2020 election and the subsequent Senate runoff were stolen – and that the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol was justified. Few large corporations in America want to be associated, even tangentially, with the discredited, caustic reports of the 2020 election, especially considering that it was precisely this kind of rhetoric that sparked the violence on Jan. 6. Manfred’s corporate sponsors were already troubled. 72 black business leaders urged all American companies to oppose laws that would restrict the rights of black voters and effectively spoke to baseball to pressure the game to make a statement. Georgia’s robust relationship with Hollywood is also under pressure. It just wasn’t worth doing business with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for her.
From a corporate perspective, the headache was worth no more than the NFL to back Colin Kaepernick’s constitutionally protected right to protest. In this case, the NFL and its teams sacrificed supposed American values; No team Kaepernick signed matched the mood of the popular mainstream. John Mara, the owner of the New York Giants, and Steve Bisciotti, the owner of Baltimore Ravens, both said they feared signing Kaepernick would hurt their bottom line financially and in terms of their relationship with fans – not because of Kaepernick was legally or morally wrong, but simply because kneeling up was unpopular. So they gave in and kept him away from football. In this case, the world after the George Floyd assassination is different from jingoism after 9/11 in America, and MLB reckoned it was better to accept the short-term criticism than bear the long-term hypocrisy, Henry Aaron honor while his state became reactionary.
The events of the week are a civic lesson. The purpose of pressure is to provoke an action, a concession. As rhetoric grew in this country – that it stems from Jim Crow, Reconstruction, Antebellum – it should also be noted that it was political pressure that landed the Braves in Atlanta in the first place. After Bill Bartholomay bought the Milwaukee Braves from Lou Perini to relocate to Atlanta for the 1965 season, Milwaukee black players, particularly Henry Aaron and Lee Maye, voiced their displeasure. “I knew what was down there and didn’t want to go back,” Henry told me about segregation years ago, repeating his position from 1964. “I was happy in Milwaukee.” Bartholomay wanted to be the man who opened the deep south to professional sports, but the strict Jim Crow laws and segregation in the area made this impossible. The 1965 AFL All-Star Game was relocated from New Orleans because black players could not find adequate accommodation or transportation. The game took place in Houston. To leave Milwaukee for Atlanta, then-Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. guaranteed that the seating would be integrated in the soon-to-be-built Fulton County Stadium – no colored section, no colored water fountains, or separate concession stands. Sport, using economic pressure for a political end, was exactly the point then and now.
Fifty-six years later, Manfred’s purpose in moving the game out of Atlanta was certainly criminal, clearly as a message to lawmakers who passed the law. The decision signaled that there are consequences for alignment with toxic narratives – both attacking the legitimacy of the voting process and restricting access to it. Manfred and MLB could have kept the game in Atlanta and used their considerable political leverage to focus directly on the Georgia General Assembly. His decision was also punishable by the working poor, whites and blacks, the Uber and Lyft drivers, the hotel workers, concessionaires and bar owners who needed the guests of a major national event to get to Atlanta and spend their money. Still, the message for those voters who, by choosing to hold lawmakers accountable for positions that may harm them in the future, or for engaging in disenfranchisement policies (as was the case with segregation decades ago), was theirs to rethink one’s own values. Arrogant, yes, and Georgia’s workers have been damaged in the wake, but arrogance is a defining characteristic of power.
What shouldn’t confuse Manfred’s decision, however, is the expectation that the company should now be seen as an ally in Major League Baseball in the fight against voter suppression. Also, the companies that put Manfred under pressure should not be viewed as morally heroic, because in the weeks leading up to the vote, Georgia’s powerful business class was largely silent. You let the math pass and try far too late to reposition yourself against negativity.
For its part, baseball is not seeking repeal of the law, nor is it at the time committed to using its political action committee to lead or support candidates against the Republican lawmakers who supported the law. Manfred also did not impose any public conditions or reviews on the new location. There is nowhere in America today that is not problematic. There was no revelation here. If Manfred said that baseball was disappointed with Georgian legislation and actively opposed the reversal of the bill, the sport would be working on a new manual that uses economic and political pressure to ensure that its corporate values are in a state reflect where one of its franchises is located. That’s not what happened. MLB recognizes that Georgia is a political nightmare – one that just doesn’t need to be. That is important and important, and in this individual case perhaps enough for this individual moment. After two impeachments, a pandemic, a riot, a country falling apart at the seams and increasing corporate pressures – and the law itself, which runs counter to the values of at least some members of the baseball executive board – Georgia just wasn’t. I am not worth the grief. Taking all the components into account, the game didn’t have much of a choice at all.