Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision to yank this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta — in response to the newly-passed election laws that Georgia Republicans rammed through during this year’s state legislative session — can be debated by reasonable minds. And it’s not a move without precedence as far as various sports organizations pulling events from states is concerned.
But does that make it the right move, even if perhaps well-intentioned? I don’t think so. And that’s not because I necessarily share the view that Manfred is simply caving to the pressures of “wokeness,” “cancel culture” or the “P.C. Police,” but rather that it feels like an empty gesture at this point — more of a look-at-me move that will not significantly impact people in power who need to hear Manfred’s stated reasoning the most.
Gov. Brian Kemp can stand in front of cameras, act aggrieved and claim to be “silenced” all he wants, but neither he nor the state legislators who voted for the new laws are likely to lose any sleep over MLB’s decision. Nor are the numerous Republican team owners who will continue to cut checks to politicians and candidates who do and would support similar restrictions.
The people who will feel the brunt of this are the stadium workers, Uber and cab drivers and many other working-class folks who had nothing to do with the controversial bill.
As a sport that never recovered all of its fan base from before the 1994 strike, lost even more after the steroid scandal, is struggling to hold onto many aging fans that it has, and can’t get out of its own way in trying to appeal to younger and more diverse audiences, I’m not sure MLB really has the leverage that it thinks it has. So while there may be other dominos to drop, and while my initial assessment of this decision when the news broke last Friday afternoon as “damn stupid” may have been a little harsh, I don’t believe it will result in anything meaningful.
If there all of a sudden wasn’t a Masters tournament in Augusta, if the SEC moved its conference football championship game out of Atlanta, or especially if more than half of the Georgia Bulldog football team refused to take the field until much of the new law was repealed, you might see some scrambling. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. And yes, doing nothing is often a political statement in its own right.
I’ve read quite a few columns from various viewpoints of Manfred’s decision, and supporters have said that he ultimately had no other choice, that the risk of numerous top players boycotting the game wasn’t worth it. But Manfred has now put himself in a position where he is going to have to decide how far he wants to take this and what other issues he wants MLB to take a stand on. What happens if the Braves make the World Series (This lifelong fan can only hope)? Nothing is likely to be changed by late October, so what does the sport do when all eyes are on it again? Also, would Manfred stage a future All-Star Game in New York while the Democratic governor whose administration delayed and in effect covered up COVID-related deaths in nursing homes still remains in office? Would he move it to a state where elected U.S. representatives and/or senators peddled baseless conspiracy theories and effectively helped lay the groundwork for a violent coup attempt at the Capitol? Where and how does MLB draw the line on basing All-Star game locations on political issues, and is it worth screwing over working people for terrible decisions?
I believe there was a better way for MLB to showcase its stated commitment to expanded voting rights by keeping the Midsummer Classic at Truist Park and using the game to both properly honor the legacy of Hank Aaron and catch people’s attention. There was probably a decent chance that Kemp and other Georgia GOP bigwigs would have been in attendance, and it’d be much harder for them to tune out the messaging when you’ve got them right there.
But, with all of that said, we can’t ignore the reason why this conversation is being held around the sport and across the state and country in the first place. And that is that the GOP-controlled state legislature passed, and the Republican governor signed, a bill purported to deliver “solutions” for “problems” that plainly did not and do not exist in Georgia. It is in some respects a flat-out power grab born out of nothing but unfounded conspiracy theories and fairy tales of a stolen election, hurt feelings of a party that senses it has been losing its political grip on a once conservative bastion of a state, and a pathetic desire to soothe the wounded pride of one man in particular, the 45th president.
The 2020 election in Georgia saw Joe Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992 and two Democratic U.S. senators elected, tipping party control of the chamber and the full balance of power in Washington. And, well, something obviously had to be done about that.
President Biden, who made erroneous comments about provisions not in the final version and Democratic opponents of the legislation have certainly engaged in some serious political hyperbole with the “Jim Crow” comments. But when a suddenly-bloated bill, which addresses alleged problems that Republicans can’t quite articulate, is swiftly passed and signed behind closed doors, by a white governor, surrounded by white men in front of a painting of a plantation home, while a black lawmaker is arrested outside the door after not being allowed to watch the signing and is threatened with substantial prison time, exactly what do they expect people to think? Come on, man.
Not that the Georgia GOP really cares about the optics of such an overreach by law enforcement or legitimate concerns of system racism and voter suppression/disenfranchisement. They have wielded their power to “restore confidence” in what they claim is a “broken system” that had “alarming problems.” Kemp tipped his hand in some his own comments during the bill signing that this wasn’t really about making voting “easier than ever.”
The kicker is that state Republicans have yet to point us to credible, factual evidence that there were systematic errors and rampant fraud that altered the true outcome of the election. Where’s the “there?”
They certainly didn’t raise any objections or concerns about their own elections and re-elections. And Kemp himself defended criticisms of the integrity of his own election to the governorship in 2018, saying the state had laws in place to guard against wrongdoing. It’s just that a once reliably red state is now changing demographically and managed to elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate and vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. So, good heavens, something had to be wrong and this couldn’t have possibly be on the up-and-up. Right?
For their part, Republicans are giving it the old college try on the hoop-jumping and mental gymnastics necessary to justify the bill as a masterpiece of upholding election integrity. As they put it, they’ve abandoned, for now, proposals to ban Sunday voting and end no-excuse absentee voting, and the voter ID requirements in the bill are likely reasonable to most people.
So it’s not so bad, right? Well, let’s look again.
•They’ll tell you that voting access has expanded with more early voting days, but the time to request an absentee ballot has now been cut in more than half and ballot requests cannot be made within 11 days of an election and later, except for hospitalizations. It has been pointed out by several people that had this provision been in effect last year, Kemp, who was quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure, would not have been allowed to drop his absentee ballot outside a precinct in Winterville.
•They’ll tell you the legislation makes absentee ballot drop boxes permanent. But in reality, the legislation severely limits the convenience and practicality of a ballot drop box. They must now be placed inside an early-voting location, can only be accessed during business hours, are limited to one per 100,000 active voters and can’t be used at all after four days prior to election day. It all defeats the purpose. But the boxes proved to be extremely popular last year, helped spur record turnout and therefore, as a result of political realities, led to a much different outcome than in the past. So something has to change, right?
•They’ll tell you the legislation makes it “harder to cheat” and will implement stronger safeguards against improper influence. Yet they are replacing the secretary of state as chair of the state elections board and giving the (for now Republican-controlled) state legislature the ability to determine that post. On top of that, the state election board will have the authority to take over local boards, with considerable leeway to make such a move, thereby re-enforcing the “We only believe in local control when it suits our interests” mantra in today’s politics.
There are many other troublesome aspects to the legislation not covered here. No, not many people are going to agree with every aspect of a 95-page bill, and yes there's a good bit of political hand-wringing happening all the way around. But the point is, no matter how much window-dressing is done to paint it as a fair-minded, even-handed bill that will be a gold standard of preserving free and fair elections, the saying about lipstick and pigs applies.
None of this is a matter of lack of imagination or innovation that would truly increase and improve voter access; it’s the clever crafting of measures that will fulfill intentions to make it just a little harder to vote in urban and traditionally Democratic-heavy areas, and minority voters stand to be affected the most. There’s a reason why the allowance of grant funding that helped make State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta a voting location has been scuttled and why much more strict limitations were placed on Fulton County’s mobile voting units. It has zero to do with making it “harder to cheat,” but there’s enough smoke and mirrors that keep this from being outright “Jim Crow.”
Georgia has become a purple state, and while Democrats will still face challenges in numbers and voter motivation when Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot, the math is there for them to win competitive statewide elections more regularly. This doesn’t sit well with the GOP, which is becoming older, more and more white, and more and more male, the opposite trend of the population at-large. And rather than expand its outreach and divorce itself from their devotion to loud-talking demagogues from the national level on down, the party’s focus remains on implementing enough tweaks in the state’s election system to skew the numbers enough in their favor to improve their chances of holding onto power.
Georgia’s election system was never a problem for them when they routinely mopped the floor in the 2000s and 2010s against a state Democratic Party that often appeared discombobulated. But now, times are changing, and because too many voters rejected them, the system was “broken” and needed fixing.
Will this ploy work? Perhaps in the short term if the looming court battles go their way and the state and its reputation weather whatever other economic and business implications the new laws may present in today’s climate. Some of the state’s elected Republicans, in their own form of “cancel culture,” appear itching for a fight with Georgia-based organizations like Delta and Coca-Cola that have spoken out against the new law, which isn’t going to do anything to help the state’s “business-friendly” reputation.
And like it or not, this will continue to be talked about in other sports outside of baseball. What will it take for Atlanta to get the All-Star Game back, or to get another crack at the College Football Playoff national championship game, Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four?
Longtime Atlanta sportswriter Jeff Schultz, who has come out in favor of Manfred’s decision, has penned a couple of thoughtful columns recently for The Athletic, one written before the announcement, in which he spoke with Hank Aaron’s grandson and Andrew Young about what the late Atlanta icon would have thought about all of this. As Schultz put it, “both speculated that if Aaron was alive today, he likely would not push for a boycott but rather use the game as some sort of platform.”
Many have and will give their opinions about how Hank Aaron or, for that matter, Georgia native Jackie Robinson would have felt about this decision. I’m not going to try to assume what either would have said, but I do know I would have listened to and taken seriously what they had to say.
More than one person has said Aaron would have believed in doing the right thing, and I believe that to be true. And in this case, if Georgia Republicans had actually done the right thing to begin with, a game featuring baseball’s best would still be scheduled for July 13 at Truist Park.