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ALWAYS PLAYING AWAY • The Mike Carlson Column

MLB All Star Boycott

MLB takes the All-Star Game away from Atlanta in response to ‘Election Integrity Act' in Georgia.
Published on April 27, 2021

GWB and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred George W Bush and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in March 2015 PHOTO: GRANT MILLER, GEORGE W BUSH PRESIDENTIAL CENTER

The decision of Major League Baseball to take the All-Star Game away from Atlanta, in response to Georgia's state legislature passing an "Election Integrity Act" which has been seen as an attempt to restrict voting rights, was not a complete surprise. What was more astonishing was how quickly and decisively MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the decision, less than a week after first announcing he would look into action after the Georgia bill was passed. Having worked for MLB in the 1990s as I did, and knowing all the pressures Manfred would face, this sort of speed indicated real concern.

MLB faced two serious problems if the game stayed in Georgia after the legislation passed. The first was Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, honoring the player who broke baseball's apartheid barrier in 1947. Every player wears Robinson's number 42 jersey to commemorate the event, and MLB would run the risk of being accused of hypocrisy had they not acted. Even more sensitive was the dedication of the All-Star Game to Braves' legend Henry Aaron, who died in January. Aaron faced racial hatred as a minor-league player in Jacksonville; when he was pursuing Babe Ruth's 60-home run record he received death threats and tens of thousands of letters filled with racial hatred. And Aaron had written about the problems he had even as an executive with the Braves and with Turner Broadcasting, particularly when he was racially disparaged by the head of Turner's wrestling promotion. Anyone asking, "what would Hammerin' Hank think of this?" would not have to search far for the answer.

But reaction was swift, and most of it was predictable. President Joe Biden had already indicated he would support such a move, calling the bill "Jim Crow on steroids". More importantly, within baseball the Players Association was firmly behind Manfred, and we can assume a majority of the owners were, although the Atlanta Braves went public with their understandable criticism. Georgia governor Brian Kemp, elected in 2018 amidst accusations of his organizing massive voter suppression, removing some 340,000 voters from the registration lists as Secretary of State, said he "would not be bullied". Atlanta mayor Keisha Bottoms said this could be the first of many such moves in light of the bill; Bottoms is black and the Braves' stadium, unlike the team's predecessors', is not actually in Atlanta, but in suburban Cobb County. And Jason Hayward, the former Braves' star who grew up in the area said, "it was nice see someone think outside the box and err on the side of respecting people and trying to push for equality."

SB202 and corporate reactions

Big Atlanta corporations Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, neither of whom had criticized the bill before it was voted into law, issued statements opposing it and drew the ire of Republicans all the way up to ex-President Donald Trump, who called for a boycott of MLB and both companies. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the corporations to stay out of politics, then walked back his comments with uncharacteristic speed when reminded of just where his donor dollars came from. Having once been offered a job by a major soft-drinks corporation as a lobbyist against "bottle bills" (requiring a deposit be paid on cans and bottles), I can image that pressure. I turned the job down because, among other reasons, the HR guy who first interviewed me and later flew to London to offer it to me, advised me I would be nothing more than a "glorified bagman" and he didn't think that would suit me. Forty years later, I feel comfortable breaking my promise not to tell anyone what he'd said.

The argument then switched to corporate boycotts, or to the relative voter "integrity" in Colorado after the game was awarded to Denver. In Colorado, all voters are sent a mail-in ballot, and 94% of voters do so by mail. As it happened, I appeared on BBC World Service Weekend April 10th and discussed the corporate issue briefly after they played an interview with Bubba McDonald, an 81 year old Republican who had won his runoff election for the Public Service Commission by 0.8% over a black candidate, Daniel Blackman. I tried to point out that the companies issue was a diversion, and that the infamous ban on serving drinks or food to voters waiting in long lines was a distraction as well. The issue, I stressed, was the bill itself, and although SB202 is aimed at "voter integrity" there was no perceptible voter fraud on display in the 2020 election, as Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensberger was forced to admit when then-president Donald Trump infamously called him demanding he find the 11,780 votes he needed to defeat Joe Biden. Biden's win, and the dual Democratic triumphs in runoffs for the two Senate seats held by Republicans were due primarily to record voter turnout.

Stacey Abrams, who had lost to Kemp by 50,000 votes in 2018 had not challenged his removal of 340,000 people from the voter rolls. Instead she set up Fair Fight and spent two years leading a massive effort to register voters and get those registered voters to keep checking so they wouldn't show up at polls to discover they were no longer on the lists. And the Covid pandemic helped by forcing the state to allow more absentee voting by mail or drop-box, which helped negate the wild imbalance of polling stations in minority areas. In 2020 Georgia saw a record turnout; Republicans lost, and SB 202 is aimed at preventing that from happening again. The key provisions are not opening hours, though those can be restricted, but the ways in which the bill hands control of all election matters directly to the legislature, who can throw out the results from any local election boards. It also allows multiple challenges from disaffected groups, where Georgia law required challenges to be based on personal information. After the 2020 vote a Texas organization, True the Vote, funded by the Koch family via the Bradley Foundation, challenged 364,511 votes; county election boards, facing lawsuits from Fair Fight, rejected the challenge; in the next vote such challenges would be legal. Remember, in 2013, the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, had ruled that provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring certain areas to clear changes in voting procedures in advance, were no longer necessary as there was no actual discrimination in modern America.

Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson 1947 PHOTO: SCURLOCK STUDIOS

Does sport's activism work?

The other question is whether MLB's action will have any real effect? Such moves have worked before. In 1965, when the American Football League was considering an expansion into New Orleans, they staged the All-Star game there. After three days of facing segregation, the players refused to play the game unless it were moved. They won; the game went to Houston, and New Orleans had to wait until 1967 for an NFL team.

In more recent times, in 2016 the NBA took their 2017 All-Star game away from Charlotte when North Carolina passed the so-called "bathroom laws" restricting transgender use of facilities; ironically it was passed to overturn a City of Charlotte ordinance that guaranteed such freedoms. The NBA's decision spurred other boycotts of the state; eventually the bill was repealed, and the game returned to Charlotte in 2019.

In 1991 the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena after Arizona voters refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. In 1992 the voters went back to the polls and agreed to the holiday; Phoenix was rewarded with the 1996 game.

Anticipating questions about the possibility of the NFL taking action with the Atlanta Falcons, its Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a memo to employees which reminded them of the league's "NFL Votes" initiative, which "addressed voting in a non-partisan and meaningful way, through voter education, voter registration, and direct support of voting across the country." He didn't explain how that worked in the face of direct suppression.

Both Goodell and Manfred are members of Georgia's Augusta National Gold Club, where the Masters was played the weekend after Manfred's announcement with no sign of protest from the PGA or its players or indeed the public, and no mention of it from Augusta National. As it happened, Lee Elder, who became the first black golfer to play in the tournament, shared the opening tee ceremony with Jack Nicklaus and South Africa's Gary Player, whose career played out under his country's apartheid. Elder broke the Augusta color barrier in 1975. But the club did not admit its first black member until 1990.

As a pillar of the establishment in the Peach Tree State, even a comment from Augusta National might have carried great impact. But, as it happened, the Masters was won by Hideki Matsuyama, who became the first Japanese winner of a Masters, or any of golf's majors, and perhaps that said something.

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