ATLANTA — Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from the state of Georgia and the Atlanta Braves on Friday afternoon, a direct response to Georgia’s controversial new voting law.
It’s a bold statement of purpose. It will surely warm the hearts of many outside the state who wish to stick it to the GOP legislators who pushed the law through. It will generate tweets of celebration, admiration and self-congratulation from people outside Georgia who will then move right on to the next controversy.
And it’s exactly the wrong move.
Pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia will hurt people who need to be helped; won’t even touch the true targets of critics' anger; and most importantly, will do nothing to help address the crucial matters of voter suppression and education.
Some background. In the 2020 presidential election, Georgia voted blue for the first time since 1992, handing Joe Biden many of the final electoral votes he needed to unseat Donald Trump. Two months later, Georgia voters favored two Democratic Senate challengers over Republican incumbents, shifting control of the entire Senate to Democrats. For Republicans, it was a humiliating three losses … even here in Georgia, where humiliating losses are a way of life.
Spurred on by an infuriated base and encouraged by nationwide conservative activist groups, Georgia Republican legislators set out to overhaul the state’s voting laws. The result was Senate Bill 202, a voting procedure bill that passed along party lines.
The bill’s origins — based on Republicans’ understandable frustration at losing three crucial elections so badly, but also on loyalty to Trump and his repeatedly discredited conspiracy theories that Georgia’s election was stolen from him — caused activists and commentators both inside and outside the state to take up rhetorical arms. And its passage spurred numerous immediate court challenges over its validity and constitutionality.
Without getting into the weeds dissecting specifics — even now, despite all the new restrictions, Georgia still has a more open voting framework than many states — this much is true: The bill was a blatant electoral power grab that was rushed through the Republican-led state Legislature just weeks after elections that saw record turnout, which isn’t a great look. The bill rolled back, rather than increased, multiple opportunities for voting and registration, which again is never a good look. (To be fair: The bill also actually increases certain other opportunities to vote, mandating at least 17 days of early voting.)
The most publicized element of the law — forbidding so-called “line warming” by handing out water bottles to waiting voters — isn’t nearly as terrible as it sounds when repeated through a few echo chambers, but again … any time you’re criminalizing the act of handing out water, that’s really not a good look.
The good look, though, is what Major League Baseball and other critics of Georgia are after, the appearance that they’re taking the cause of voting rights seriously. It's a lot easier to issue a statement condemning the state of affairs than invest in direct community action that can have a real effect. It’s a lot easier to do a smug quote-tweet on a photo of Gov. Brian Kemp signing the bill into law underneath a painting of a plantation — yet again, another bad look — than it is to do the hard work of educating and inspiring voters. But that’s exactly what’s needed, in Georgia and around the country.
The irony is, Georgia already provided a perfect example for how to rally the electorate in service of a cause. Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in a controversial 2018 gubernatorial election, didn’t just complain that the system was rigged, she created the Fair Fight initiative for voter education. Abrams’ work registered more than 800,000 new voters in the state of Georgia, voters who were decisive in turning the red state blue.
Why wouldn’t Major League Baseball, Delta, Coca-Cola and other major corporate entities focus on investing their vast funds in concrete efforts like voter education and registration? Yes, it’s hard work, long hours with lots of phone connections severed and doors slammed in your face. But it’s also a lot more effective in achieving goals than a theatrical walkout like this.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won one of the two runoff elections in January, hit on this exact point in a statement released late Friday afternoon. “It is my hope that businesses, athletes, and entertainers can protest this law not by leaving Georgia but by coming here and fighting voter suppression head on, and hand-in-hand with the community,” Warnock said.
And just a few days ago, Abrams also asked businesses not to abandon Georgia over the bill. "Leaving us behind won’t save us," Abrams wrote in USA Today. "So I ask you to bring your business to Georgia and, if you’re already here, stay and fight. Stay and vote."
Clearly, the Braves aren’t on board with this decision. “The Braves organization will continue to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities,” the team said in a statement, “and we had hoped our city could use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion.”
In truth, the Braves organization, by far the most apolitical of the city's pro teams, probably should have stressed the importance of equal voting opportunities and enhanced the discussion a little more before this happened. The team has remained largely silent during much of the political upheaval of the last year, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that “keep quiet until this all blows over” is no longer a sound strategy.
Plus, there’s the fundamental question of whom these kinds of withdrawals hurt the most. Yes, they’re economically painful … but it’s not like that economic pain falls only on the shoulders of Republican legislators. Small businesses, the service industry, hourly workers — these are the people who suffer the most proportionate harm from withdrawals, to say nothing of the fans who just wanted to see the game’s best in their yard.
On a more emotional front, the idea that Major League Baseball and its supporters will shame or embarrass the state of Georgia into changing is just absurd. Republican voters already don’t want to see politics and sports mix — a 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for instance, found that 57 percent of Republicans wanted to hear less about politics from athletes now than they did five years ago. If anything, this will make the Republican base double down, and many will likely see MLB’s withdrawal as little more than good riddance.
Now, if the SEC decides to move its championship out of Atlanta, then we might just be having a different discussion. And that very well could come next.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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