MLB’s All-Star Brawl Shows Sports Can’t Escape Modern Politics

Today’s guest columnist is Syracuse University professor Rick Burton.

As a former pro sports league commissioner (albeit of Australia’s National Basketball League) from 2003-07, I’ve watched with great interest the decision by Major League Baseball’s Rob Manfred to “pull” the MLB All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to Georgia’s new voting legislation.

In years gone by, league administrators, team owners and even star players sought very much to distance themselves from politics. Sport was good, religion tricky and politics bad (or, at least, to be avoided). This is where broadcasters would normally cue up a Michael Jordan soundbite that he never entered the contentious partisan fray because Democrats and Republicans all bought shoes.

For many years, I shared M.J.’s position. In fact, the other night, I told my son I was apolitical. That my collegiate journalistic upbringing (the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University) required I not endorse a political party lest I lose my objectivity. He quickly called me out and said that wasn’t an option anymore. Everybody had to get into the swimming pool.

That’s why Manfred’s decision has fascinated me. I currently profess at Syracuse, and having previously served at the pleasure of team owners, I frequently tell my classes commissioners hold one primary purpose: to ensure asset appreciation for their club owners, thus maximizing the wealth of the game’s investors.

This strikes many as crass, and the preferred language students like to hear is how a commissioner exists to protect the integrity of the game, to benefit the players of the game (it should be noted the courts long ago concluded the players are, in fact, the game) and then to get around to selling tickets, sponsorships, broadcast packages, enforcing the rules and resolving disputes between disgruntled parties, of which there is a never-ending supply.

Fine. So be it. But now league commissioners must read social tea leaves and make decisions that are very much political. And these days inaction is a statement of some kind. This is where a strain of Newtonian physics comes in: For every executive decision, there is an equal and opposite offended party. That is, to benefit one party is to really piss off another.

Move the All-Star Game, and the Texas governor refuses to throw out a first pitch. Support the interests of your players and sponsors (all quickly on the social record in support of the move), and you bother the snot out of a significant portion of your fan base.

In MLB’s case, bothering fans means walking a dangerous tightrope. For the last decade, media pundits and columnists like this one have thrown around generic statistics that baseball’s spectator base is shrinking. That TV ratings are declining. That fans are too white, too old and don’t spend money like they did 40 years ago. That the percentage of black players in the total player population is too low (and in the vicinity of the lowest it has been since the 1960s). That data and infield shifts are killing the game. Oh, and one more: That the World Series should be played on Tuesdays at 2 p.m.

You get the point. It is easy to offend.

And yet, here we are with much maligned MLB, making a statement that it is willing to wear the mud (slung by many) and absorb the brickbats (heaved by others). MLB has taken a stand. Just as it did (with the help of the Brooklyn Dodgers) in 1947. Jack Robinson’s arrival in New York City 74 years ago was not popular with everyone, but it ushered in a golden age for baseball that showed the power of inclusivity and equity.

In truth, the movement of an All-Star Game is not a monumental decision. Difficult? Perhaps. Contentious? Certainly. But it is only one game, and history will probably reward Commissioner Manfred (and his owners) for taking a stance in an age when the “owners” of the game can’t avoid it. Or, as John Mellencamp once sang, “You got to stand right up for somethin’, or you’re gonna fall for anything.”

The commissioner’s job is not intended to please everyone. It is intended to serve the League’s principal investors. To that end, is it possible this is exactly what Manfred just did in moving the All-Star Game? That he tried to serve the wishes of his rich and powerful constituents? That his decision was not one of thinking about Democrats and Republicans but actually a different party—the players themselves. The ones who are the game. And at least some of the people who pay the players to thrill us once more.

If that was his logic, it seems highly commendable.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and teaches an honors class called Baseball in American Culture each fall. His co-authored book 20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student-Athletes will be published this July.

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