MLB gave up the big lead by throwing a #WokeBall.
Political activism will do to professional baseball what it did to the NBA. Atlanta fans shouldn't have to be punished for a political disagreement.
Competitive sports are well past the point of being totally politicized. The now official decision by Major League Baseball to remove this year’s All Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s new election law is just a new escalation of it, and one that will benefit no one. If everyone is being honest however, sports were never truly removed from politics and other current events. It is easy to forget that in 1968 US Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute, leading the International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to expel them from the competition in Mexico City. Brundage also refused to suspend competition in 1972 in the wake of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by terrorist infiltrators. He said that “the games must go on”. At the time, he was attempting to forcefully keep the games nonpolitical, which is itself a futile exercise as hundreds of different nations with intricate political problems are the participants.
But almost fifty years later modern sports commissioners, administrators, team owners and athletes are going to the other logical extreme. Not only does politics belong in sports according to them, it should be used as a fulcrum in political disputes. This is an abuse of sports as a form of diversion from day to day life, and has already devastated the ratings of both the NBA and NFL. In 2016 the NBA moved the next year’s All Star Game away from Charlotte over the North Carolina “Bathroom Bill”, stating that it discriminates against transgenders. Commissioner Rob Manfred should have been smart enough to recognize that trend. If he is and made the All Star Game decision anyway, then he’s simply a coward. Baseball fans were all set for a fresh start after a year of being cooped up at home due to lockdowns and being constantly bombarded with politics, and Manfred basically has let it go like an easy grounder through the legs because of a change to Georgia’s voting laws that actually expands access to polling places. The premise of his decision appears so absurd that even Joe Scarborough said that there is no logic to it, because at the new site in Colorado voting laws are even more restrictive. This is yet more evidence that rather than adding depth and character to the society around it, sports are now absorbing the hysteria and stupidity attendant to it. How did it get that way?
Does Sports move opinion?
Based on the sports news landscape over the past few years, it would be safe to assume that Manfred and other industry insiders think that the answer to that question is “Yes”. I would agree that the answer is also “Yes”, but not in the way that MLB’s leadership thinks it does.
When we watch a competitive contest between two athletes or teams, usually the spectators line up along either side because of the skill of the players, not their identity. Baseball has among its most iconic figures Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete to play professional sports at the major league level. One could point to this example as evidence that America’s pastime is inevitably tied to the cause of civil rights and equality in the country.
But regardless of his accomplishment, Robinson’s entry into baseball did not lead to a sudden end to all racially discriminatory practices in the sport, let alone America. Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey refused to have black players on his team until 1959, a full twelve years after Robinson first suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Did MLB owners yield to integration out of a sense of civic duty or a recognition of the need for racial justice? On the contrary, most of them started to realize that segregation was no longer a “smart” way to build a roster. The Dodgers won the National League pennant the year that Robinson joined, and four of the following seven seasons as he was joined by fellow black players Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe over the subsequent few seasons. All three of them were All-Stars, Campanella for eight consecutive seasons. Newcombe became the inaugural winner of the NL Cy Young award for pitchers in 1956, the year after the Dodgers won the World Series for the first and only time while playing in Brooklyn.
Also by the time that Yawkey finally relented and designated Pumpsie Green to be the first black Red Sox player, there was a clear reason for him to do so: His team was awful for most of the 1950s. The Red Sox never finished above 3rd place during that decade, and were constantly trailing in the standings. Meanwhile the New York Yankees, their arch rival, won six World Series and eight American League pennants during that era. Among their players was Elston Howard, another perennial All Star and the first black Yankee. Robinson broke the colour barrier for baseball, but it was his success and that of other legendary players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron that showed how integration was good for baseball.
Barriers once broken stop existing
The bigotry that Robinson and his generation went through was truly a product of the era that he lived in. Indeed, we today have seen the adjective systemic misapplied to every perceived wrong that has the mildest racial connotation to it, but in his time it was in the most literal sense a systemically racist society. What is different today, as opposed to when I was in grade school, is that we were taught that thanks to Jackie Robinson the system changed for the better. Racism in baseball, and in America at large, did not disappear overnight but it has largely become dormant. There would be Latino, Japanese, Dutch and Australian baseball players that came after him, in part because MLB began to realize that expanding the talent pool of baseball also means that more fans tune it.
What sets apart Robinson’s experience from those of today’s activist athletes is that his very career was a blow struck against racial restrictions whereas theirs are a constant voyage in search of a worthy cause to give their lives meaning. The sports media in the 1940s was hesitant to tackle bold political conflicts and tried to give , nowadays it seeks it out like bloodhounds. It is easy to forget that in 2018 Twitter “detectives” and “journalists” dug up old tweets of Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb from seven years earlier when he was a high school senior. Being a minority athlete on the other hand is held up as the pinnacle of virtue even when they don’t deserve it. Tennis superstar Serena Williams, considered the greatest of her generation if not all time, has repeatedly verbally abused and threatened officials during matches but remains a major sports icon and the second highest paid female athlete.
Another major difference is that the average athlete of the 1940s of any race was much closer in terms of lifestyle to the rest of society, even if they had more notoriety. Robinson served in WWII, as did Ted Williams who was later called up for the Korean War. Nowadays one self-absorbed athlete (Megan Rapinoe) feuds with another (Draymond Green) over why there is less financial investment in women’s soccer than in professional men’s basketball. They both lean on their identities as respectively an LGBT woman and a black man, even though neither of these are a reason a fan tunes in to one of their games. The average American contending with a worldwide pandemic and attendant economic chaos cannot help but see this as a squabble between two detached elites. They see themselves as modern day versions of Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, when most anyone would see that they have reaped rewards far in excess of either of them while sacrificing very little.
Barkleyism ascendant or in retreat?
One of the last professional athletes who may have at least a handle on what the fans really believe is former NBA player Charles Barkley. He recently took to the air on his TNT panel show to talk about how he really believes that most white and black people are basically good and that it is really politicians seeking to divide them. USA Today then published an opinion piece claiming that he was speaking “empty platitudes about race and politics [that] came at an awful time”. This is one more example of when reading an article published in media leads one to believe the exact opposite of what is written. The columnist attacking Barkley is more used to writing articles about why Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is cranky, or thank you letters to Kevin Durant for tweets.
Unfortunately, Barkley’s plea for Americans to see the positivity among their peers of all races is also a sign that it is too late to save sports from being swallowed by politics. It is similar to the “pound cake speech” made by Bill Cosby in 2004 before his fall from grace warning black Americans about the dangers of blaming their troubles on external factors like systemic racism. The audience that listened to that speech continued to do the opposite, and sadly so is Major League Baseball regarding Barkley’s. The best thing that MLB could do at a moment like this is to focus on the game, the fans, and experience that make this time of year so enjoyable, but that would require common sense and a minimal amount of self-respect that apparently Manfred does not have.