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Amy Bass: Baseball Takes A Stand

So, here’s the thing:  in America, you can’t cancel baseball. 

Major League Baseball took a stand.  It isn’t the first time.  I’m hoping it won’t be the last.

Accusations of Cancel Culture tend to emerge when people don’t like the debate at hand.  It’s very much like people who say that sports shouldn’t be political – they tend to say that when they don’t like the politics being espoused, but turn the other cheek if it is something they agree with.  Folks who disparaged Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee seemed to have no problem with Pentagon flyovers before games.  In 2017, then-Vice President Mike Pence stormed out of a Colts game in protest of players’…protest.  A few months later, he refused to stand alongside the others in the dignitaries’ box at the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games when North and South Korea marched into Opening Ceremony together. That’s right: as the other heads of state stood out of respect for a rare moment of unity, America stayed seated, using sport to make a political point.

Major League Baseball’s response to Georgia’s SB202, a 98-page bill created in the wake of historic victories by Democrats and signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp behind closed doors, furthered the political trajectory it has been on since the death of George Floyd, taking an active role in the political upsurge and agitation centered on Black Lives Matter: stenciling BLM logos on the field last summer, allowing players to wear shirts in support of social justice campaigns, and endorsing the right of players to kneel during the National Anthem.

As the first professional sport to integrate in the 20th century, in 1947, baseball showed its fans what it looked like for a Black man to play on an all-white team, Jackie Robinson’s first historic at bat coming almost a full decade before the turning point of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision.

Today, it is taking a stand against what many identify as voter suppression.

While the condemnation of the new Georgia law by corporate behemoths Delta Airlines and Coca Cola matters, as Delta’s head bluntly told employees “the entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie,” baseball, simply put, holds more cultural water.  Just as it took an NBA shutdown last year to wake America up to the impending epidemic of COVID-19, baseball’s declaration that it was moving the 2021 All-Star game to Denver alerted the nation to the elevation of voter suppression in the wake of the 2020 election.

In the world of politics, the MLB’s decision split right down the middle, endorsed by President Joe Biden, applauded by former President Barack Obama, who connected it to the legacy of the late Hank Aaron, and condemned by former President Donald Trump, who encouraged a boycott of baseball.

Baseball has been at a crossroads for a while now:  as America’s unofficially official pastime, there is a tension between its storied history and its fraught attempts to attract new generations of fans.  Of America’s major sports, it has the oldest fanbase by a lot: the average fan comes in at 57, while the NBA boasts a vibrant 42.   Baseball acknowledges the need to change, trying to increase the pace of play with seven-inning doubleheaders and throwing a runner on second base when a game goes into extra innings.  In the minor leagues, even more radical change is on the table, including pitch clocks, bans on defensive shifts, and automated strike zones.

But baseball’s problems go deeper, with the demographics of its fanbase a far cry from what Branch Rickey sought when he brought Robinson on board.  On the field, Black players compose less than 10 percent of the league’s ranks, with the college game showing about half that.  Latin American players prove to be the main source of the league’s diversity, at least on the field; moving into managerial and ownership ranks, that diversity, too, evaporates.

I am always reminding my sport studies students at Manhattanville College that we need to make meaning out of sports – use it as a window to understand what is going on in the world.  With MLB’s stance on Georgia, baseball is showing us that there can be consequences, both symbolic and economic.  But come July, when the best athletes descend upon Denver to play ball, we will need to remember:  Georgia’s SB202 will still be in place, and it is going to take some extra innings to take it down.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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