On Optics and Doing the Right Thing

I come here not to bury MLB, and not really to praise it, but to wonder what else it could have done. On Friday, the league announced that it would be pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in the wake of Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature passing a law that would, among other things, impose burdensome new ID requirements on voters, limit absentee voting, and give the legislature wide latitude to intervene on state and county election boards. It was a move both correct and frustratingly limited, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise both doing the least and also the most it realistically could in the moment.

Argue if you’d like that MLB’s decision is as much about optics as doing the right thing. (You’d be correct.) Feel free to think that, regardless of the reasoning, a good decision remains a good decision. (You’d once again be right.) MLB had no choice here; holding a marquee, vote-driven event in a state where voting itself is under attack would be tone deaf and wrong. Nor should a league set to celebrate the life and career of Henry Aaron at the Midsummer Classic do so in a state whose new voter law disproportionately affects Black voters. That’s how you look both stupid and wrong, and for as much as MLB has been both in the past, stepping in this particular mess was a mistake easily avoided.

The Braves, meanwhile, put out a statement saying they were “deeply disappointed” in MLB’s decision, claiming that by moving the game, it was robbing the team of a chance to “use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion.” Before we examine the league’s actions further, it’s perhaps worth digging into that particular nugget of PR babble for a second. How exactly does an All-Star Game lead to a “discussion” about voter suppression? What is there even to discuss? Were the Braves planning on turning the home run derby into a TED talk about whether it’s bad when a state decides to make it harder for people of color to exercise their rights? The whole thing reads rather callously coming from a team that abandoned a perfectly functional stadium in a majority-Black city for a brand-new one, built at great expense to local taxpayers in one of Atlanta’s white suburbs, and yet claims that Atlanta is “our city.” It’s worth mentioning that the Braves didn’t make a statement about SB 202, as this Jim Crow-aping bill is called, when it was conceived, debated or passed. It all suggests that fans in Atlanta and Georgia can count on their baseball team speaking out only when it is directly impacted.

Buried amid the Braves’ statement, though, is a trenchant point: “Unfortunately, businesses, employers and fans in Georgia are the victims of this decision.” The All-Star Game is a limited event that would’ve provided temporary economic stimulation to Atlanta, but even temporary is better than nonexistent. Hotels, restaurants, bars and stores would have gotten a brief windfall—a needed boost after the pandemic put all those industries on life support. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic organizer in Georgia, expressed opposition to boycotts while also commending MLB for voicing opposition to the law; she urged “those who can to come and speak out, and […] those who are here to stay and fight.” Holly Quinlan, the president and CEO of Cobb Travel & Tourism, told CNN that losing the All-Star Game would represent a loss of $100 million for the city and state. Quibble with the math if you’d like — it’s certainly not open source — but it’s hard not to feel like MLB is punishing Georgia’s citizens (or at least Georgia’s small business owners) for what the government did, giving them a well-intentioned punch to the gut.

But this is the difficult choice MLB faced, and it’s tough to argue for keeping the game in Atlanta and letting it play out in the shadow of state-sponsored discrimination. A boycott was the only tool within reach, even if it’s an imperfect one; the other option was doing nothing at all. The league has never been particularly adept at or graceful in its attempts to do right; like most companies, MLB prefers talking about things rather than doing them. Last year, as protests engulfed the country over the violence that police departments enact with terrifying casualness on Black bodies, MLB tried to put itself on the right side of history by having players hold a long piece of black cloth during the national anthem on Opening Day. Likewise, “BLM” stencils popped up on pitching mounds, though most of them disappeared within weeks, soon replaced by corporate logos. When players spoke out following the August shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with some teams going so far as to sit out games, MLB didn’t cancel that day’s slate as many other leagues did. As I wrote at the time, given an opportunity to stand up and say something, the league passed the mic to its players and left them standing alone in the spotlight while it scurried off stage.

At the very least, the league didn’t do that here, and though the spine he showed on this decision may be made out of dollar bills, Rob Manfred at least said the right words in the statement that MLB released: “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.” The Players Alliance was even more pointed, using their statement in support of the decision to call out the harm the bill does not only to the Black community in Georgia but also the precedent it sets for other states to do the same. In the face of all that, MLB couldn’t let the All-Star Game happen in Atlanta, no matter what impact pulling it would have on the city and its people. To go on regardless would have hurt even more — the league declaring that the problems of its fans are not its problem, and that counting cash is more important. Baseball is more than a sport, and MLB is more than a business. Even if taking the All-Star Game out of Atlanta doesn’t result in the undoing of this repugnant law, it’s the right thing to do regardless. And when it comes to fixing this particular problem, MLB’s hands are relatively tied.

But “relatively” is, well, relative. MLB still wields more power than whole communities could ever imagine. Manfred has direct lines to politicians and CEOs across the country, as do the league’s lobbyists; when MLB speaks, people have to listen. So while it’s good to see the league come out in support of voting rights, that can only be the first step. Taking away an All-Star Game won’t right the wrongs committed here; taking a pointed, public and permanent stance on positions like “no longer donating money to politicians who support this kind of thing” will. As is, MLB showers cash on Republicans and Democrats alike, buying allies to ensure that the league’s antitrust exemption remains. It’s easy to act when the only people getting hurt are a team and some fans; it’s much harder when you might compromise your own bottom line.

But real change takes real sacrifice, and it takes a league that stands up before bad things happen, not after. It’s not enough to move the All-Star Game and proclaim that actually, voting is good. If MLB is on the side of the angels, or at least doesn’t want to be seen hanging out with the devil, then go on the offensive. Don’t just say you support voting rights; use that financial might to support the people on the ground in Georgia who have worked tirelessly for years to make improved voter access a reality. Don’t boycott after the fact; call attention to similar measures on the legislative agenda in Missouri and Arizona and anywhere else. Make sure that when a new site for the game is announced, that the the voting access bona fides of that city and state are a key part of the decision. And don’t stop at voting rights; speak up against the laws taking root across the country aimed at excluding trans youth from sports, punishing children for the crime of being themselves. There’s much more MLB can do, and mountains that it can move. All it takes is the will to do it.

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