Backlash over MLB’s All-Star Game move tells you more about Republicans than baseball

Republicans are mad at Major League Baseball. The charge: Engaging in politics.

That’s a popular accusation on the right — that not capitulating to its particular ideology is pejoratively political. (While promoting it would be good patriotism.)

The intractable intertwinement of sports and politics is well-documented and hardly incidental. Taxpayer money being put toward stadiums to house teams owned by billionaires, millions of dollars donated to predominantly Republican candidates by those team owners, the whole antitrust exemption and a more recent congressional act protecting baseball’s right to underpay its minor leaguers. In fact, MLB has the oldest political action committee of any sports league — nearly 20 years old — and spends money across the aisle to lobby for its interests like that preposterously named Save America’s Pastime Act.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, MLB’s PAC suspended political donations to both parties, lest they continue to financially back someone who instigated an attack on the government. The league’s PAC had donated $669,375 to Senate and House candidates since the 2016 election cycle, with just over half going to Republicans. But it’s hard to be bipartisan and uncontroversial when one side is the party of an attempted coup.

In that case, MLB largely averted the wrath of either party with a blanket policy. But in the wake of a hotly contested voting bill being signed into law in Georgia, the planned site of this summer’s All-Star Game, there was no neutral option.

Baseball is a political entity by virtue of simply being a multibillion dollar business, but since Democrats and Republicans both enjoy a day at the ballpark, MLB has a vested interest in avoiding any overtly radical positions. (In practice, the sport is conservative in viewership and constituents and legacy — an accepted fact that I am ignoring simply because it makes a takedown of the current tantrum too easy.)

Smart people have tempered the reaction to MLB’s decision to relocate the All-Star Game from the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park this year by reminding everyone that it was likely more about risk mitigation than revolutionary activism. A business decision first and foremost, carefully calculated to minimize dissension within the game’s ranks and among their corporate sponsors. Definitive action now to limit the distracting coverage of the first half of the season.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 04: The All-Star Game logo is covered up on the right sleeve of manager Brian Snitker #43 of the Atlanta Braves during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on April 4, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Atlanta was scheduled to be the host city of this year's All-Star Game, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that due to Georgia's new voting laws, the league would be moving the game elsewhere. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
The All-Star Game planned for July in Atlanta was moved to Colorado's Coors Field after Georgia passed a more restrictive voting law. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

It certainly is all of those things. And perhaps also a heartening testament to the changing times, a new standard of decency or at least increasing scrutiny on institutions with powerful public clout and the financial means to affect policy.

The point is that MLB didn’t go looking for a fight. The league is not “interfering with fair and free elections,” as former President Donald Trump claimed. Instead, the Georgia GOP passed a bill so intrinsically divisive that it immediately sparked a national conversation and MLB had to say something. The right isn’t mad because baseball has been newly corrupted by some "Schoolhouse Rock!" version of civic engagement or because it sincerely believes that having to prove you’re the person who paid for tickets is a hallmark of a communist regime. It's just pissed that a sport with such big flags wouldn’t tacitly endorse its attempts to put a thumb on the scale of democracy.

Senate Bill 202 — that’s the technical name for the new law — is designed to make it more likely that in some future version of the 2020 election, Trump would win the state of Georgia. That’s my opinion, but I’m not really sure how controversial it is. The legislation, and the dozens of similar bills that have cropped around the country to curtail access to voting and limit the authority of county election officials following President Biden’s victory in November, exist purely to target the hypothetical voter fraud that swayed the election in the Democrats’ favor. It’s a response to Trump’s claim that the presidency was stolen from him.

But the voter fraud didn’t happen. And, as has been repeatedly proven in courts of law, Trump’s assertion about the impropriety of the election he lost was a Big Lie.

That’s the origin story for a law that also suppresses access to voting — even if marginally — disproportionately along racial lines and makes it easier to subvert the will of the people in future elections. It codifies a distortion of reality that undermines the current government. It perpetuates a violent, divisive doubt in the democractic process. It represents an increasingly existential battle over voting rights.

It is — and here I’m editorializing again — bad.

Major League Baseball’s decision to relocate the All-Star Game out of Georgia this summer was about shielding the game itself from that battle as best it could while siding with the suddenly controversial position that states should always be working to expand voting accessibility. Whether moving the game out of the state was actually the best way to support citizens who stand to be potentially harmed by the S.B. 202 is sort of immaterial to the new debate over whether baseball has abdicated its role as America’s Pastime now that commissioner Rob Manfred has come out and said “fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.” History tends to disappoint when we assume it will trend reliably toward progress — and invocations of it are often overwrought cover for something more self-serving — but in this case, MLB was trying to be on the right side of it.

Forcing public-facing institutions to normalize or even compromise with the fiction that underpins Georgia’s new law is not an apolitical position, it’s a win for the people who want to sow fear about election integrity that can be manipulated to their advantage. Taking an extreme stance is a way of moving the middle point toward one side, it’s a tactic the right has used to terrifying success in recent years — drawing political battle lines around human rights or voting rights issues and then crying partisanship when reasonable people or corporations call it out.

It’s become impossible for sports leagues to be decent and appease the radical right wing. Tepidly affirming that Black lives matter is only a partisan position if your political affiliation is built in part on opposing that sentiment.

MLB’s decision to move the Midsummer Classic to Colorado is not a commentary on baseball or even Manfred, and the blowhards who are positioning it as some sort of communist turn for the conservative sports league know that. It’s a referendum on just how pernicious S.B. 202 and the other proposed laws like it really are. And everything else is a coverup of that fact.

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