Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Major League Baseball can get the attention of conservative politicians who are indifferent to civil rights.
Major League Baseball is scheduled to hold its 91st All-Star Game at Truist Park in Atlanta on July 13—the first time in 21 years the league’s annual showcase is to be played in that city. But pro baseball should extend Atlanta’s All-Star drought, and other sports should avoid scheduling their own signature events in Georgia, to show Republican state lawmakers that their latest efforts at voter suppression are unacceptable.
In the past, major sports organizations have forced other states to reconsider infringements on their citizens’ rights, and that kind of pressure is sorely needed in Georgia now. Last week, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, signed an elections bill that President Joe Biden has described as “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” The law imposes new voter-identification requirements for absentee ballots, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, and hands state officials more power over local elections. Even before the legislation passed, many voters of color in Georgia faced hours-long queues at the polls. Making those waits even more arduous, the new law bans giving food and water to people in line to vote.
It’s bad enough that the new law furthers the “big lie”—the baseless election-fraud claims that former President Donald Trump and his associates made before, during, and after the 2020 presidential election. The Georgia law also is an obvious attempt to intimidate and discourage voters of color, who helped clinch Biden’s narrow victory in November, elected two Democratic U.S. senators in January, and gave the Democratic Party full control of Congress.
In the days after the election bill passed, the Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive director, Tony Clark, indicated that players might support moving the yearly summer classic in response. “Players are very much aware” of the new law, Clark told The Boston Globe. “As it relates to the All-Star Game, we have not had a conversation with the league on that issue. If there is an opportunity to, we would look forward to having that conversation.” Meanwhile, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who is Black and Asian American, already has said that he would consider passing on the opportunity to manage the National League team in the All-Star Game because of what’s happening in Georgia.
Civil-rights activists have discouraged a comprehensive boycott of Georgia, because such an action could harm vulnerable families and undermine the Black economic base in the state—most notably in Atlanta, a city that has been ripe with opportunity for people of color. Bernice King, the daughter of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted: “Please stop the #BoycottGeorgia talk. That would hurt middle class workers and people grappling with poverty. And it would increase the harm of both racism and classism.”
But more targeted actions could help, and this is where athletes and sports leagues could be particularly influential. When major sports organizations have taken a stand for civil rights, they have been able to achieve substantive results. The NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona because the state refused to enact a paid holiday honoring the King. The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game out of North Carolina because of a state law demanding that transgender people use public bathrooms and locker rooms matching the sex on their birth certificate. For almost 15 years, the NCAA banned South Carolina from hosting championships because the Confederate flag flew on statehouse grounds.
In each case, those states backed down. Major sporting events are powerful motivators because they provide a significant economic boost and a badge of prestige for host cities. Conservative politicians who willingly ignore civil rights and other social-justice issues may listen when their stubbornness jeopardizes their standing in a sports-obsessed culture. Some fans might support Georgia’s new law now, but that support could be severely tested if the law winds up costing the state the All-Star game or other big events.
Could officials in Georgia be persuaded by such arguments? Keep in mind that Atlanta has become an extremely attractive destination for major sporting events because it has favorable weather, excellent transportation links to the rest of the country, and the headquarters of many potential corporate sponsors. If not for the global pandemic, the 2020 Final Four would have been played in Georgia’s capital city. The Super Bowl was held there in 2019, as was the College Football Playoff semifinal. The PGA Tour’s Masters Tournament is in Augusta every year.
By moving the All-Star Game to another city, Major League Baseball could show an overdue commitment to social progress. Despite how much pro baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson for breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1947, MLB doesn’t exactly have a reputation for taking a strong stance on racial issues. Last year, MLB was the last among the major professional sports leagues to speak out after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. When another wave of protests hit the sports world following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, several MLB teams postponed games to acknowledge the racial reckoning sweeping the country. But the league brass had difficulty coming up with a unified response involving every team.
Overall, pro baseball has struggled to attract Black players and fans and address a long history of entrenched, systemic racism in the sport. Today, just 8 percent of MLB players are Black, down from 18 percent in 1986. At the start of last season, three teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Kansas City Royals—didn’t have any Black players. Pro baseball has only two Black managers, one of whom is Roberts, who is just the second Black manager in MLB history to win a World Series.
Although baseball’s past record on race can’t be excused, becoming the first pro sport to cancel a major event in Georgia would give some meaning to MLB’s otherwise empty statement last June pledging to “be better” on racial issues. Baseball can be the first to lead the way with a targeted boycott, but every league should now consider Georgia off-limits for major sporting events. Those who undermine democracy shouldn’t be rewarded for their pernicious efforts to disenfranchise people of color.
Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.