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There’s no crying (cancel culture) in baseball

<h6>“Baseball Diamond” by Geoff Livingston / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/geoliv/4936761222" target="_self"><strong>CC BY-SA 2.0</strong></a></h6>
“Baseball Diamond” by Geoff Livingston / CC BY-SA 2.0

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it was moving this summer’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft from Georgia to Colorado. A rare political stance for the league, it was the right thing to do given the voter suppression unfolding in Georgia.

The move came in response to a new law passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature that severely limits ballot access for voters in the state. Understanding the scope of the law is necessary to see why MLB was compelled to respond. 

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The law restricts voter access by imposing harsh limits on absentee voting, ballot drop boxes, and early voting, among other obstacles. It also strengthens the legislature’s power in running elections at the expense of county election officials and the Secretary of State. 

The New York Times described the law, enacted in the wake of narrow Democratic victories in the presidential and Senate elections (victories achieved in large part because of Black voter turnout) and subsequent lies about voter fraud, as “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.” 

Let’s take for example the restrictions on absentee voting. The law cuts the period in which voters can request absentee ballots by more than half, imposes a state-issued ID requirement for these ballots (requirements which studies show disproportionately hinder Black voters), and limits the number and hours of availability of dropboxes in highly populated areas. In the 2020 presidential election, over a quarter of Georgia voters cast an absentee ballot, 65 percent of which voted for President Biden. In summary, the law makes it harder to vote, in ways that will especially affect Democrats and Black voters in more concentrated areas like the urban and suburban centers that powered Democrats’ victories last winter.

In its statement supporting MLB’s decision, the Players Alliance — a coalition of over 150 current and former Black MLB players — cited the way the law “not only disproportionately disenfranchises the Black community, but also paves the way for other states to pass similarly harmful laws based on widespread falsehoods and disinformation.”

Nate Cohn argued in the Times that the law likely will not disadvantage Democrats. But his analysis elides the small ‘d’ democratic issue at hand. As blatantly partisan as it is, the law is not just objectionable because it may hinder Democrats; rather, it is objectionable on moral grounds. The right to vote is just that — a right, not a privilege. States should expand voting rights and make it easier to cast a ballot, not harder. Voter suppression violates the fundamental promise of our democracy. 

Cohn prefaces his analysis with the phrase, “If we leave aside the administrative provisions and the question of intent…” However, the motivation and intent behind the law is a vital part of this story, regardless of its actual effects. Even if voters are able to climb over the higher barriers to vote, they shouldn’t have had to face those obstacles in the first place. The ability to overcome attempted voter suppression does not excuse the attempt.

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We do not yet know how the law will change electoral outcomes (especially given how narrowly contested Georgia politics have become), but even if the law had no effect, we should still be concerned that the Georgia legislature is attempting to limit voter access. As Jamelle Bouie argued, “To the extent that it plays at neutrality while placing burdens on specific groups of voters on a partisan (and inescapably racial) basis, it is, at least, Jim Crow-adjacent.” In a state like Georgia with a history — distant and recent — of racist voter suppression, combined with the proliferation of dangerous lies about voter fraud in the 2020 elections, it is more than reasonable to challenge a law that especially targets Black voters.

This is the context that motivated MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game and draft. In his statement announcing the decision, Commissioner Robert Manfred stated that “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.” 

Georgia voters cannot immediately reverse the damage of the voter suppression law. Thus, it is private interests like MLB’s prerogative, and, I would argue, their duty, to voice their opposition in the language the legislature may actually respond to: money. 

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp predictably responded by decrying the decision as an example of “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is a term that has become so abstracted as to have lost whatever utility it once had, but if we can take it to mean silencing someone because you disagree with them, then there is no greater form of cancel culture than targeting a bloc of voters because their ability to exercise the franchise puts your political group in danger.

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Many opponents of MLB’s decision claimed that the league was betraying the legacy of Hank Aaron, an Atlanta Braves legend who will be honored at this year’s All-Star game. But Hank Aaron himself said that “if it had not been for politics, we would not be able to vote. I think politics needs to be injected into sports.” 

Indeed, the only reason the Braves are in Atlanta is because of politics. In 1965 the Braves made the city agree to integrate the Atlanta stadium as a condition for the franchise to move from Milwaukee. This came after Black players including Hank Aaron voiced hesitancy about playing in the segregated South. As Howard Bryant wrote for ESPN, “Sports using economic pressure to a political end was precisely the point, then and now.” 

Texas Governor Greg Abbot criticized MLB for “being influenced by partisan political politics.” But while Republicans say keep politics out of sports, they’re happy to keep politics in sports when it comes to restricting the rights of transgender athletes, or requiring the national anthem before games. 

Ultimately, as I’ve argued in the past regarding the WNBA, the Olympics, the NBA, and the USWNT, politics shape every dimension of society, including sports. Where stadiums are located, the playing of the national anthem, military flyovers before games, and when and how players are allowed to protest are all results of politics. 

So the question isn’t whether leagues like MLB should involve themselves in politics, but how they should leverage the role they already play. Every institution has a responsibility to act to protect voting rights as they come under increasing threat nationwide. At Princeton, groups like Vote100 do important work to help mobilize voters. MLB has increased its role for the public good, providing stadiums for voting last year and as vaccination sites more recently. Opposing Georgia’s voter suppression was an important next step. 

Moving the All-Star game and the draft are relatively small measures — they won’t reverse the law or mitigate its impact — but symbolic choices matter too, and signalling has important meanings. If they didn’t matter, Republicans would not have reacted so strongly to the league’s decision. If Georgia Republicans want businesses to continue operating in their state, they should do their jobs and honor the voices of their constituents instead of suppressing their power. There’s no crying (cancel culture) in baseball. 

Julia Chaffers is a junior history concentrator from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

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