Photo: Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, one city reportedly under consideration to host the 2021 All-Star Game after MLB pulled the game out of Atlanta in the wake of what critics say is a law that increases voter suppression in the state of Georgia.
The 2021 Major League Baseball All-Star Game was scheduled to be played in Atlanta, Georgia on July 13 this year. It was supposed to feature a celebration of the life of Black baseball legend, entrepreneur and civil rights advocate Henry Aaron, who passed away in January at age 86. Instead, the game will be played in another state, and it has become a powerful flashpoint in the fight against voter suppression nationwide.
Aaron’s activism was informed by his own life story. His childhood in Mobile, Alabama was punctuated by the routine of hiding under his bed whenever the Ku Klux Klan marched through his segregated neighborhood. He began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues and Minor Leagues under Jim Crow conditions, and he joined the Braves in 1954, when overt, state-sanctioned segregation was still the norm.
“Aaron continued to endure racism throughout the entirety of his baseball career, which lasted from 1954 to 1976,” recounted CBS sports reporter Katherine Acquavella last January.
“During his journey to passing Babe Ruth in all-time home runs, Aaron received relentless hate mail and threats to his life, solely because of his race and the fact that he was breaking a white man's record,” Acquavella wrote. “He was forced to depart via the back exits of ballparks for the sake of safety, he needed a police escort with him most of the time and his children were subject to strict rules and limitations due to kidnapping threats.”
Aaron eventually made his home in Atlanta and became one of the city’s most high-profile and successful entrepreneurs, providing all the more reason for MLB to celebrate the life of this extraordinary man at one of the sporting world’s most high profile events.
The All-Star Game was already scheduled for Atlanta when Aaron passed away. The coincidence of his death set the stage for what should have been a powerful, poignant remembrance. It was also an opportunity for MLB to raise its diversity profile, reaffirm its support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and shake free of its segregationist past once and for all.
Instead, MLB got a cold, hard slap in the face. Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Georgia passed, and Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed, a new voter suppression law that has quickly become the leading symbol of Republican efforts to disenfranchise Black voters across the country.
By March 26, the Major League Baseball Players Association indicated that its members were open to moving the All Star Game out of Georgia.
The promotion of the 2021 All Star Game as a homage to Hank Aaron made it all but impossible to consider anything else. Holding the game as planned would have forced MLB to promote its brand to audiences around the world as clueless, hypocritical, disrespectful and cruel all at once.
Adding more fuel to the fire, a coalition of top Black executives issued a public letter last week that casts the voter suppression bills as a continuation of white supremacist violence throughout the civil rights movement. The coalition urged corporate America to “marshal its collective influence to ensure fairness and equity for all.”
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“The decision [to move the game] comes a little more than a week after the passage of S.B. 202, a Georgia law that President Joe Biden criticized earlier this week, saying that it will restrict voting access for residents of the state,” reads an article posted on MLB.com on Friday.
The article cites MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who said that “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”
Manfred also observed that last year MLB became the first professional sports organization to join the non-partisan Civic Alliance, an organization promoting equal access to the ballot box that currently lists 1,119 business members with a reach of almost 5,200,000 employees.
The decision most likely reflects another significant development that occurred earlier this year, when basketball star and high profile voting rights advocate LeBron James became the first Black person to be a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, and one of the very few Black owners in MLB history, by virtue of his newly acquired stake in the team’s parent company Fenway Sports Group.
Chaffing at any criticism describing their efforts as voter suppression, Republicans in Georgia have been quick to frame the issue as a demonstration of harmful anti-business policies promoted by Democrats.
Somewhat ironically, the Atlanta Braves organization provided a tone-deaf but on-point summation of that argument.
“Unfortunately, businesses, employees and fans in Georgia are the victims of this decision,” the Braves wrote in an official statement.
That misses the point. By nature, the purpose of a boycott is to spark a public discussion of harm that is already occurring.
The history of the civil rights movement is itself peppered with the effective use of boycotts, most famously during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which took place during the years in which Aaron was just beginning his career with the Braves, from 1955 to 1956.
Voting rights advocates have not fallen for the trap. While expressing disappointment over the economic fallout, they have adopted a message that supports the MLB decision as a flexing of business empowerment muscle and an expression of civic responsibility.
Last week Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams provided a ringing endorsement of the MLB decision and defended the responsibility of corporate citizens to act.
“Our corporate community must get off the sidelines as full partners in their fight,” Abrams wrote in a statement.
U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) struck a similar note, stating that “businesses and organizations have great power in their voices and ability to push for change.”
“It is not the people of Georgia or the workers of Georgia who crafted this law, it is politicians seeking to retain power at the expense of Georgians’ voices,” he added.
U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) also echoed the theme, while pinning the blame for economic pain on the shoulders of Republican office holders.
“The leadership of Georgia’s Republican Party is out of control and Georgia is hemorrhaging business and jobs because of their disastrous Jim Crow voting law,” Ossoff wrote.
Consumer boycotts are notoriously fickle, and they rarely succeed. The MLB decision, however, falls into the category of a corporate boycott. These can be highly effective, and the business of professional sports has wielded its influence to great effect in recent years.
In 2018, the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans, in protest of North Carolina’s notorious anti-LGBTQ “bathroom bill.” Significant parts of the law were overturned in court just one year later.
In March 1991, the National Football League moved its previously scheduled 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona after the voters turned down a measure to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday. The issue came up for another vote in 1992, and this time it passed.
Supporting such corporate activism is an emerging layer of employee activism, as top athletes leverage their media access to push owners into action.
One especially interesting development occurred in February, when after months of attacking the Black Lives Matter movement, former U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia) was forced to sell her stake in the Atlanta Dream franchise of the Women’s National Basketball Association. The sale took place after months of lobbying by players on the team, many of whom are Black.
Corporate citizens across the nation dropped the ball after the failed insurrection of January 6. The unprecedented effort to overturn the 2020 election by force drew criticism from a few corporate leaders, who withdrew financial backing for Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the election.
However, some of those who initially pledged to defund insurrection-supporting members of Congress later opened the door to PAC donations again. Others never really targeted insurrection supporters at all, but simply pledged to review corporate giving across the board.
By March, the corporate movement to defund insurrectionism had withered on the vine, even as a Republican-led voter suppression movement took hold in state legislatures across the nation. In effect, Republican office holders are seeking to accomplish by law what the insurrectionists failed to achieve by violence.
Now MLB has provided corporate citizens with a second chance to lead on voting rights.
The decision to move the All-Star Game has had some impact. Over the weekend, HP, Dow, Salesforce, Viacom and Under Armour joined almost 200 companies in a statement denouncing voter suppression laws in Georgia and other states.
That is all well and good, but the state-by-state, piecemeal protection of voting rights is not sufficient. The end game will take place in the U.S. Senate, where the landmark federal voter protection bill H.R. 1 hangs in the balance. Its fate depends on the ability of a razor slim Democratic majority to abolish or revise the Senate filibuster, which has been described as a lasting “monument to white supremacy.”
If corporate leaders truly are serious about stopping voter suppression efforts while protecting the voting rights of their employees, customers and clients this time, they should be prepared to push the issue to the limit, lobby for reform of the filibuster, and direct their PAC dollars to U.S. Senators and candidates who support H.R. 1.
Image credit: Jakob Rosen/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.