Major League Baseball Has Not Gone Woke

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is nobody’s idea of a social-justice warrior. Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I would love nothing more than to tell you that Major League Baseball’s decision to move the 2021 All-Star Game out of Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, signifies a cultural policy shift in the sport toward social activism, voting-rights initiatives, and the principles of the Green New Deal. But, despite what the screaming white people on television (and in the Georgia Governor’s office) have been braying about all weekend, I’m sad to say that no, baseball has not suddenly gotten woke. This is, and might well always be, a deeply conservative sport, one in which the broadcasters either criticize young Latino players for being too “showy” or just flat-out use slurs when they think no one’s listening. This is a sport with 15 Black managers in its history and no Black owners, one that has only 7.8 percent Black players — the all-time high was 18.7 percent, 30 years ago — as opposed to 68.7 in the NFL and 74.2 percent in the NBA. It is a sport in which an estimated 70 percent of its fans are men age 55 and over, a sport whose champions still reliably visited the White House when Trump was in office. (Well, the white ones, anyway.) Compared to its basketball and football brethren, baseball has played a notably minor role in sports’ social-justice awakening the last few years.

But Major League Baseball is a corporation and a very public one. And we’ve reached the point where the old way of doing business — staying out of politics, taking no stands, sitting back and making as much money as possible — is no longer a conceivable plan of action for a public-facing business that regularly holds big national events and is still seen, fairly or not, as a sort of keeper of a national moral flame. MLB may have a strong belief in voting rights in the state of Georgia, and it may not. But its decision to yank July’s All-Star Game out of Georgia — and it’s out of Georgia, not Atlanta; the Braves, with their new stadium in the suburbs, themselves pulled out of the city long before MLB did — had little to do with principle. It was a common-sense, bottom-line call. It was probably not much of a decision at all.

Pressure had been building on MLB for weeks. A turning point came when Delta CEO Ed Bastian took heat from his own employees, along with protesters and workers at Atlanta-Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, for not coming out strongly against the bill. He promptly doubled back and called it “unacceptable.” Delta and Coca-Cola are the signature corporations of Georgia, and once they spoke out, many of the rest of the state’s corporations were going to follow. (Aflac, based in downstate Columbus, immediately came out against the bill as well.)

If MLB’s All-Star Game happened to be anywhere but Atlanta this year, there is no way the league would have weighed in on the matter of voter-suppression legislation. But Delta, Coca-Cola, and Aflac taking their stands clearly signaled to MLB’s other corporate sponsors — and there are plenty — which way the wind was blowing. As sportswriter Howard Bryant put it, “The powers that be at the top of the game decided that this was bad for business … It goes back to January 6. It goes back to the fact that I think people want to turn the temperature down on the rhetoric and the narrative of election fraud. And I think Major League Baseball just realized that this was not the place to do this.”

If the game had gone on as planned, the question of player boycotts would have become the signature story: Every hitter and pitcher would have been questioned on their views and been forced to make some sort of public stand, adding up to even more political pressure placed on MLB. This would have been particularly uncomfortable considering that the league is planning to honor the late Hank Aaron, one of the greatest Black baseball players ever, at the game. So Major League Baseball either was going to displease its major corporate sponsors while getting pummeled in the media, or it was going to displease Brian Kemp and Fox News. That decision isn’t much of a decision at all.

It is also worth remembering — and this cannot be emphasized enough —that the instigating event here, the reason all of this is happening, is that the Georgia state legislature passed a law, signed by the governor, which will make it harder for Black people to vote (and give that legislature a chance to overturn election results they don’t like). And this is all thanks to the petulant and insane rantings of a defeated bigot. Coca-Cola didn’t do that. Delta didn’t do that. Stacey Abrams didn’t do that. Georgia’s lawmakers did.

For all the talk of how “political” MLB’s decision was, it actually takes the league farther away from politics; it makes them less of a factor. This is a one-time hit: They pull out of Georgia, everyone at Fox News yells at them for a couple of weeks, they shift the game somewhere else (quite possibly Denver), and everybody moves on. Republican House members can claim they’re going to pull the league’s antitrust exemption, but they don’t have the votes to do it. (I’m pretty sure they’re not gonna start exclusively drinking Pepsi either.) There will be another, different thing to get angry about next week. That’s how this works.

The modeling agent here, as always, is the NFL, which was at the center of nearly every political conversation for more than two years but stayed the course, waited for the temperature to go down (and for attention to eventually be diverted elsewhere), and eventually, for a while anyway, returned focus to the games themselves. The NFL’s deal-with-one-public-relations-at-a-time strategy, often mocked, has turned out to be a smart one.

I would love it if Major League Baseball truly committed to voting rights and political activism and social justice. Their partnership with the Players Alliance, a group of current and former players “focused on building equitable systems in order to change the trajectory of diversity throughout baseball,” which MLB explicitly name-checked in its decision last week, points in the right direction. There is certainly plenty of progress to be made, and this is a sport that, at its best, has been a driver of change rather than a regressive force. But I’m far from persuaded that social justice was the propulsive force behind their All-Star Game move. The game was going to be a big moneymaker for MLB until the Georgia legislature prevented it from making as much money as it was supposed to and tarnished the league’s image in the process. This is simple corporate capitalism. MLB is taking its ball and going home, and that was the only real choice it had.

Correction: A previous version of this article wrongly stated that Home Depot had come out against the Georgia voting law. The company has not taken a position on it.

Major League Baseball Has Not Gone Woke