Sports

Why Major League Baseball Is Boycotting Georgia

Outrage over the state’s controversial voting law doesn’t fully explain the league’s decision.

The 2021 All Star Game Logo is displayed on a jumbotron in Atlanta's Truist Park
An outdated jumbotron. Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

On Friday, Major League Baseball announced that it’s moving the 2021 All-Star Game and the 2021 MLB Draft out of Georgia, in response to the state’s new voting law, SB 202. In a statement, Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”

The Atlanta Braves, who would have hosted the All-Star Game, responded with a snippy statement of their own, saying that while the “organization will continue to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities […] Unfortunately, businesses, employees, and fans in Georgia are the victims of this decision.”

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Donald Trump predictably said his followers should boycott baseball, but it wasn’t just the Braves and the Trumpists and Fox News who cast doubt on MLB’s decision. Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams said she was happy that the league and its players spoke out, but that she didn’t support moving the game, a move she said would hurt the state economically. On Tuesday, the league announced the game will be held in Denver instead.

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On this week’s Hang Up and Listen, Slate’s sports podcast, the hosts discussed the Georgia law, MLB’s decision, and the national reactions to both. A portion of their conversation is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Josh Levin: In 2016, when the NBA announced it was pulling its All-Star Game from Charlotte because of North Carolina’s bigoted trans-bathroom bill, we could say, “Oh, that’s basketball. That has a younger, more liberal fan base. It’s got a progressive commissioner, Adam Silver, yada yada …” But baseball has neither a young nor a liberal fan base. Rob Manfred, not known for being progressive. And yeah, we can talk about corporate and sponsor pressure having a lot to do with this decision, but it is worth noting that golf’s PGA Tour announced last week that it’s not moving its season-ending tour championship out of Georgia. So what do you think baseball is doing here?

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Joel Anderson: I think, like any other large corporation, Major League Baseball was reluctantly dragged into a political fight that it wanted no part of, but simply could not avoid. And a lot of that is because they’re a victim of bad timing. Their All-Star Game just happens to fall this year, at this time, in the midst of this large political fight. So they couldn’t really run from it. And I think the tell of that is this: Anyone who has remotely followed politics in the last year, or even the last 50, knew that Georgia Republicans and Republicans in statehouses all around the country, were going to rush through a series of so-called voter reform laws, right? They telegraphed this the whole damn time, including when people were running up into the Capitol, complaining about a stolen election. This was all telegraphed.

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We knew this was coming and nobody said anything. Right? There wasn’t any of this talk about a boycott or anything before that. They’re acting like this is something new. So when Georgia legislators were meeting and drafting this bill, there was plenty of time for everyone to speak up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We don’t support it. And if it passes, we’re prepared to take action.” The MLB, Coca-Cola, Delta, Chick-fil-A—but not Chick-fil-A, because I’m sure they side with the bill as it is—but they all could have said this in February. They could have applied pressure before the law passed, let everyone know what the political economic stakes were there. But they didn’t. And now everyone is scrambling here at the 13th hour. So, you know, I guess the league has been clearly headed in this direction.

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Last summer, they delivered a statement about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They talked about how the game has zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice. They’re featuring Black and brown players as the faces of the game. They know what the predictions about the country’s demographics are. They can’t afford to be dragged into the future, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter what Major League Baseball believes. The important thing is that they’re putting their money where their mouths are. I don’t want to belittle or diminish this decision, because I think it actually is meaningful, but I just do wish that they had been ahead of this. There was an opportunity to get ahead of it, and now they’re behind it. And now they’re dealing with the political fallout.

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Stefan Fatsis: So I think that Major League Baseball acted the way a big, entrenched, politically divided sport in America, that isn’t the NBA, is going to act. They were reading tea leaves in February, right? They were probably hoping that this bill would not pass, that this wouldn’t happen and they wouldn’t be put in a difficult position. But once they were put in this difficult position, they kind of did the right thing here. And I think that does deserve some credit. I think this is better than baseball saying, “We don’t want to get involved in politics,” or, “We support everyone’s right to vote, but we feel like we’ve made a commitment to Atlanta and the Braves to stage the All-Star Game there this year.” I think baseball looked at this and said, “Fuck it. These people aren’t worth it. Why get on the wrong side of everybody else here?”

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This was a position that is supportable. It is palatable. It does not make baseball look like reactionaries. And the downside is pretty small.

Levin: Well, the downside, I think, is one that, for instance, the NFL and NFL team owners didn’t want. Back when Donald Trump was president and they were deciding what to do about the racial justice protests, that downside [was] becoming a kind of pariah in conservative media and in conservative circles. I mean, it’s not just Donald Trump. It’s Tucker Carlson, it’s Fox News, it’s Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. And for an organization like Major League Baseball, which does have as a major part of its ownership and constituency people that align with conservatism and who do skew older. This isn’t something that Major League Baseball has any interest in being involved in. And there is a different way forward here, that the PGA Tour, I think, is trying to tow a very different line [on] and putting out a statement that’s like, “We believe in voting rights, but also we’re not going to move our championship.”

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And they could have chosen that different path and aligned themselves with Stacey Abrams and said, “We don’t believe that this is right. We think it’s wrong. We stand strongly against it. But we also don’t believe in punishing the good people of Georgia. And we’re not going to run from this fight. We’re going to come be there and be involved in this and speak out against it from this place where we have a team and where we have this huge potential event in July, where we can make that a centerpiece.” And so they chose. It’s not like they had no options here, Joel.

Anderson: Yeah. Well, and I’m sort of curious, maybe you guys can help answer this for me: Are people sort of overstating the economic argument here? Because do people really come into town from all over the country, in the middle of a pandemic, for an All-Star Game? We know that when municipalities and towns and cities host these events, it ends up costing those areas more money than they end up getting in terms of economic benefit. We’re just taking them at face value that this is going to hurt them economically too, I think. Maybe it’s a great showcase for the city on TV, but like who in the hell isn’t aware of Atlanta? You know what I mean? Like nobody is going to watch the All-Star Game and be like, “Wow, I wasn’t thinking about Atlanta before, but now I see it on TV. This must be great.” So I think to me, at least, people are overstating the economic implications, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

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Fatsis: No, no, no. You’re absolutely right. I mean, the economic implications of one game over a weekend with some ancillary Fan Zone and hotel sales are totally overblown. This is zero-sum stuff, right? If there were no All-Star Game, the way there is going to be no All-Star Game in every other major league city this summer, there is no lost economic benefit here to the city, frankly.

Levin: It would bring attention, and maybe that’s part of Major League Baseball’s calculus.

Fatsis: Sure.

Levin: OK. It might sound good in the moment to be like, “We’re not going to cancel this because we’re going to stay and fight for what we believe in,” but do they really want their showcase game and event of the summer—where all the stars that they’re highlighting in these commercials are going to be—do they want that whole thing to turn into some sort of public service announcement about voting rights, where like Fernando Tatís Jr. and Ronald Acuña and Mike Trout, instead of being asked about their feats on the field are asked, “What do you think about what Republicans are doing to voting in America?”

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Fatsis: Or even more than that, Josh, what if the players, led by this coalition of African American players, the Players Alliance, decided to take a stand? I mean, the reporting so far was that no, the players weren’t going to boycott the All-Star Game because of this, but it sure as hell would have given them a terrific platform to make a statement about this. And that would have made both Atlanta and Georgia and Major League Baseball, their employers, look pretty bad.

Anderson: Yeah. Also, imagine trying to do this though: Hold an All-Star Game that’s going to be tied so explicitly to the memory of Hank Aaron, right? A guy who did not want to go to Atlanta in the first place, because it wasn’t an integrated city at that point. So imagine them having to play that game against the backdrop of all of that. It just seems like … Again, I’m not saying that MLB and Rob Manfred aren’t for voting rights or that they’re not politically engaged in some of this stuff, but the timing of it is I think more salient here than their political ideology.

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Levin: And this hasn’t been brought up that much, but there’s also the symbolism of playing the game in a stadium in suburban Cobb County.

Anderson: Yeah.

Levin: It’s not actually in the city of Atlanta. And when the Braves moved there, there was all this talk about, “Oh, Turner Field. The old stadium is in like a crime-ridden neighborhood,” and all of this not particularly coded racial talk, and it’s moved to this place that’s not accessible by rail, because people in Cobb County—predominantly white, suburban county—voted not to extend the rail system to their community. And so symbolism there is not particularly pretty.

Fatsis: No. And I would take it a step further, Josh, that this game would have been hosted by a team, at a time when the Washington football team is changing its name, the Cleveland baseball team has agreed to change its name, and here’s another team with a Native American name and racist imagery in its logos and other stuff over time, where fans very likely would have been performing a racist chant, when one of the Atlanta Braves players came to the plate during the game. And as you said, [it’s a team that] left the majority Black city. This looks bad on—this could have looked bad on that score too.

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Anderson: Yeah. I mean, man, just to sort of double-down on that point. They moved to Cobb County, where there’s a Lester Maddox bridge. And for people that are not familiar with Atlanta or Georgia, Lester Maddox was an explicitly segregationist governor who got elected in the early 1970s. Right? This is even almost within the span of our lifetimes that Georgia has this guy. That bridge still exists today. That’s on the way to the stadium there right now. So it’s like, all the imagery is working against Georgia and the Atlanta area in particular right here. It’s like, you guys are in no position to hold any judgment against anybody else. Clearly you all have your own issues that you’re dealing with. And it’s OK if people from outside of Georgia or Atlanta step in and say, “You know what? Don’t think we want to be here. Don’t want to be involved in that. Don’t want any of that imagery involved with our showcase game.”

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Fatsis: Yeah. You mentioned Henry Aaron. I mean, as Howard Bryant pointed out on Twitter over the weekend, the only reason that Atlanta has a baseball team is because the city agreed to integrate seating at Fulton County Stadium as a condition for Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves to move South.

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Levin: I think it’s worth circling back to SB 202 itself. And there have been a bunch of useful pieces. Georgia Public Broadcasting had one, [and] the New York Times had one, just about the various kind of things that are in the bill and that aren’t in the bill. And it’s not as simple and explicit as being—Some of the early drafts are like, “No voting on Sundays,” and some things that seem kind of obvious to target this increased voting power of Black communities and people of color in Georgia that led to Democrats winning Senate seats and led to Joe Biden winning the state in 2020. But the stuff that’s actually in the bill, it’s a little bit more confusing what the effect is going to be. Or maybe some things might actually be good, but the increased voter ID requirements are going to likely disenfranchise Black voters disproportionately. And I think it’s important to look at that stuff and read that stuff. But the most important thing is to look at who’s behind this.

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Anderson: Mm-hmm.

Levin: And back to what you were saying, Joel: This was a movement, and it’s going on across the entire country, that’s entirely based on the fact that Donald Trump lost. And if you look at the architects of this, both in the state and in the groups that are writing this model legislation, it’s all, like, these Stop the Steal people, and this guy Hans von Spakovsky who’s been pushing voter fraud lies for decades. And so it feels to me like, again, while it’s important to look at what the law actually says, this is fruit from a poisoned tree.

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Fatsis: Yeah.

Levin: The thing that I think is complicated for Major League Baseball and other corporations is that this is basically an argument about whether we can just forget what happened with the election and with the Stop the Steal thing, and with the Capitol riot, and just kind of quote-unquote “go back to normal” and allow the people that did this to be reassimilated into polite society and politics, or whether these people and these ideas need to be just drummed out of everything.

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It is, I think, important to lay a marker down, like maybe Major League Baseball is doing. I don’t know if they’re intending to do this, but maybe practically they are, and say, “This is not what we are as America. This is not what we should be doing.” But I do feel like there is going to be this kind of cultural and political forgetting, and these people are going to be kind of reassimilated. And so this is a really important moment right now, where the kind of early lines are being drawn about what’s going to be OK and what isn’t.

Fatsis: Yeah. I think that’s an important point to make, because the marker that’s being laid down is just saying no—saying no to this nonsense. Mitch McConnell on Monday morning said “corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” And Major League Baseball is saying this is nonsense, and it should be ignored.

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Levin: But this is like Republicans against Delta and Coke. I mean, can you imagine, like, Delta and Coke being considered part of the woke quote-unquote …

Anderson: The resistance.

Fatsis: The resistance, yeah.

Levin: … the woke liberal mob?

Anderson: Yeah. If you’re going to take the fight to anybody, you might as well do it against Brian Kemp, a guy who ascended politically in large part through his own efforts at attacking quote, “voter fraud,” and pushing through regressive voter suppression efforts. That guy is one of the—If there was a Mount Rushmore of people who were behind voter suppression efforts in this country, it would be Brian Kemp, a guy who is notorious for basically running his own gubernatorial election against Stacey Abrams. And then basically empowering Stacey Abrams a couple of years later when she’s led the Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff Senate victories a few years later. So if you’re going to take the fight to anybody, it might as well be Brian Kemp.

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And actually, I’m glad you brought that up, Josh. Because I had one quick thing to point out, and it’s sort of a little bit afield, but I’ve been pointing this out on Twitter for the last couple of years. And I think the last few days have pretty much validated everything I’ve ever thought about the sort of people who unironically deploy the words “woke” and “cancel culture” in these sort of debates. From Donald Trump to Brian Kemp and so on: They’ve co-opted what was once a really cool term, woke, meaning the moment that a Black person becomes aware of the impact that racism has in every facet of their life. That’s something that I grew up with, that was the term that we used for it, ironically or unironically, whatever. And now they’re using it to bolster anti-Black arguments and debate points.

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So to me personally, woke is the new N-word, or the new N-word lover. And there’s no way that you can look at the gradual bastardization of the word and tell me otherwise, though of course Stefan is our resident words expert here. But there’s actually a really good article in the Washington Post last week about the journey cancel culture and woke have taken in the last few years. And even Dr. Meredith Clark at [the University of Virginia] has been doing lots of good work and research on those terms the past few years. So all that to say, if you weren’t using woke prior to 2018, you’re suspect, and I for one can hear that dog whistle.

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Levin: Thank you for that, Joel. And I want to end with some uncertainty, because what happened with the NBA and the All-Star Game in North Carolina is that HB2, the trans bathroom bill, was repealed. They didn’t have the All-Star Game there in 2017, but they rescheduled it, and it was there in 2019. I don’t know what’s going to happen here. It seems unlikely that Brian Kemp and his allies in Georgia are going to be like, “You know what? Our bad.” And so what does Major League Baseball do? They’re trying to thread this needle here. You can look at it from one perspective and say, in a sea of bad corporate choices, they’re actually trying to avoid conflict as much as they can. But this is not going to go away.

Listen to the full episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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