MLB didn't want to join Georgia legislature in turning back the clock on racial progress
League's decision to relocate all-star game a response to controversial new voting law
Texas governor Greg Abbott had been slated to throw the ceremonial first pitch Monday afternoon in Arlington, before the Toronto Blue Jays faced the Texas Rangers in a game whose original claim to fame was crowd size.
Four weeks ago, after Abbott announced the end of all mandatory COVID-19 restrictions for every business in the state, the Rangers announced they planned to make every seat at GlobeLife Park available for their home opener against the Jays. The decision made that game the first major sports event in the U.S. with unrestricted attendance since the pandemic was declared last year.
That Texas added nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases statewide on Monday wasn't the issue. The sellout crowd would serve as an assertion of freedom and fearlessness, and every American's right to spread a deadly disease.
In the end 38,238 spectators showed up to watch the Jays' 6-2 win.
Missing from that number: Abbott, who cancelled his appearance to signal his disgust at Major League Baseball's recent decision to move its annual all-star game out of Atlanta.
That move, of course, was MLB's response to a series of new voting laws in Georgia that are neutral on paper, but in practice will disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters. One provision restricts providing food and water to people waiting in line to vote, even though recent elections have featured hours-long lineups at polling stations, with bottlenecks most common in Black neighbourhoods.
WATCH | Georgia passes controversial voting law:
You don't have to read too far between the lines of the new election law to figure out that conflicts over voting rights will fall along racial lines. A New York Times analysis points out that new regulations would mean that Fulton County, where nearly 45 per cent of residents are Black, would go from 94 ballot drop boxes last year to just 23 for future elections. If you can foresee these new regulations teaming up to drag Black voters back to the 1950s, you're not alone. Several critics, including U.S. president Joe Biden, have compared Georgia's new law to the "Jim Crow" system of segregation that ruled the south for nearly a century.
Major League Baseball, which has its own well-documented history of segregation, decided it didn't want to join Georgia legislature in turning back the clock on racial progress, and opted to move this summer's All-Star Game out of Atlanta, triggering threats of retribution from a long list of conservative politicians.
The backlash is helpful, in that it highlights the hypocrisy undergirding the relationship between sports, business and politics. Abbott was happy to play ball, until MLB took a stand against a law tilting the electoral playing field in Republicans' favour. Then, suddenly, the Rangers and Blue Jays weren't worth his time.
'Stay out of politics'
Sen. Mitch McConnell sent a stern message to MLB and other companies using their platforms and PR muscle to weigh in against the new voting law. "My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics," said McConnell, whose donor list includes UPS, FedEx, and General Electric, to reporters Monday.
But, he added, "I'm not talking about donations."
Watching the backlash — Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republican lawmakers now want to strip MLB of its antitrust exemption — becomes even more fascinating when you keep in mind that extreme reactions are the variable, and decisions like the one MLB made last week are constant.
In 1990, the NFL told Arizona lawmakers that it would move the 1993 Super Bowl out of the state if it didn't recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. That decision failed to set off a chain reaction of Republican senators threatening to use the tax code to punish the league, but by 1992 Arizona recognized Dr. King's birthday as a holiday, and the following year the Super Bowl went to Phoenix.
MLB's decision, however, has triggered prominent right-wingers in a different way.
A month ago, republican politicians like Matt Gaetz, and infotainment outlets like Fox News, railed against "Cancel Culture," arguing that making Mr. Potato Head gender neutral, or removing children's books with racist images, were the political left's attempt to erase cherished history.
By this week, Abbott had cancelled his date with the Blue Jays, while the #BoycottMLB campaign seeks to all but cancel America's pastime. And it's all happening three months after a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, hoping to consummate the ex-president's quest to cancel the results of the 2020 presidential election.
But the numbers are the numbers. Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes, and the electoral college by 74. Vote numbers held steady after a series of recounts, and none of team Trump's allegations of widespread voter fraud yielded credible evidence. Yet, the state legislature, bent on fixing problems that didn't exist, overhauled voting laws, in the name of election integrity. It's akin to MLB banning any pitch over 100 mph to crack down on sign stealing.
WATCH | Warnock, Ossoff score monumental senate wins in Georgia:
Of course, the real motive, to extend the baseball analogy, was the Republican party's 0-for-3 showing in the 2020 election cycle. Biden beat Trump for president, winning 73 per cent of the votes cast in Fulton County. In the Senate races, Jon Ossoff defeated republican incumbent David Perdue and Raphael Warnock, with a high-profile boost from the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, topped former Dream owner Kelly Loeffler. Against that backdrop, the new law seems more like outlawing triple-digit velocity because you're sick of striking out.
Those details also help clarify why MLB had to move its showcase event.
Race aside, you still have a law that advantages one party at the expense of its opponent. That's an awful look for a league still in damage control mode after the Houston Astros cheating scandal, and trying to sell the idea of fair competition.
But race is central to the campaign to restrict voting access, and MLB is still reckoning with the long-term effects of its racist past, even as the percentage of Black big-leaguers hovers near historic lows. The league can't align itself with any initiative that carries even a whiff of Jim Crow, and the new law carries a heavy scent of systemic racism.
And it's all unfolding in a state where voters — who are also residents and potential customers — have sent an unambiguous message that they want the opposite of these new laws. So MLB did what businesses do all the time. They looked at the stats and listened to the numbers.
- A previous version of this story said the new Georgia voting law made it illegal to provide food and water to voters in line. It is not outlawed in all instances.Apr 13, 2021 2:39 PM ET