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There Is Power Hitting in a Union

How baseball players could play a key role in fighting Georgia's voting rights catastrophe. (UPDATE: Results!)

Tyler Lahti

The Major League Baseball Player Association, the baseball union, has an opportunity to make a big statement against the surge of voting rights restrictions around the country by calling for the 2021 All-Star Game later this year to be moved out of Atlanta—and threatening to boycott the game if it isn’t. They should take it. (Update: they took it—see the bottom of this post.)

After Georgia went for President Joe Biden last year and elected two Democratic senators in January, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature rammed through Senate Bill 202, a package of reforms that criminalize giving food and water to voters waiting in line, give the Republican state elections board the ability to suspend county election officials, and restricts absentee voting, among other things. It was all transparently about Republicans losing two huge elections in Georgia in three months, former President Donald Trump thought it was just great and also that it should apply retroactively, and as Gov. Brian Kemp signed it behind closed doors, Park Cannon, a Black state legislator from Atlanta, was hauled off by Georgia State Police for knocking on the door of the room where the signing was taking place; she said she is facing up to eight years in prison.

Georgia isn’t alone: Iowa slashed early voting in March and Texas and Arizona are well on their way to passing similarly suppressive legislation. At least 55 bills to restrict voting are moving through two dozen state legislatures right now, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

But Georgia is the only state that is set to host the MLB All-Star Game. The game is set to take place in July at Truist Park in Cobb County, where the Atlanta Braves play their home games. MLBPA president Tony Clark said last week that the players are “very much aware” of the law, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told the AP Wednesday that he and Clark had begun having preliminary conversations about moving the All-Star Game. Biden endorsed the move in a Wednesday interview with ESPN, saying he “strongly supports” a boycott effort over the new law.

Not everyone agrees. “I absolutely oppose and reject any notion of boycotting Georgia,” Jon Ossoff, one of those Democrats elected in January, told the National Review in a statement. 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who more than any other individual has been credited with the Democrats’ recent success in Georgia, has not weighed in on baseball specifically. But she said in a USA Today op-ed this week that people shouldn’t “yet” boycott Georgia’s corporations like Delta and Coke, which dragged their feet the entire time the bill was actually being deliberated before coming out with full-throated opposition a week after it had already become law.

There are obvious drawbacks to a boycott. The economic impact of the last All-Star Game in 2019 was $65 million, and stadium workers and restaurant and hotel workers in the surrounding area could feel the pinch of a lost influx of people into Atlanta. And if the goal is to make the Georgia state legislators who voted for this bill feel the pain, it’s sort of a mixed bag, as Cobb’s state legislative delegation has nearly as many people who voted against the bill as those who voted for it.

But at this point there’s few other options to make a mark. The legislature spit on its electorate with this new bill and then a state legislator herself was hauled off in cuffs for knocking on a door, so it’s not like Brian Kemp is exactly concerned with the will of the people. Neither the AFL-CIO nor any individual unions are calling for deliberate action over this aside from passing the For the People Act, and Georgia has one of the lowest rates of union density in the country, so the chances of a strike are slim to none. There have been multiple lawsuits filed by civil rights groups against the new law, but these cases are going to take years to resolve.

What else can be done in the meantime, besides bringing attention to what Georgia’s doing in an attempt to keep the very real threat to voting rights front and center?

Here is where the MLBPA comes in. If anyone ever doubted the power that sports and athletes collectively have in America, the last year proved them wrong. The suspension of last year’s NBA season in March was the moment when the seriousness of the pandemic set in for a lot of people in this country, and late last summer during the NBA playoffs, Milwaukee Bucks players forced a strike for racial justice after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, which started a wave that then swept across the world of professional sports, including baseball.

Although baseball is known as a more apolitical—if not outright conservative—sport than basketball, it’s not like the MLBPA hasn’t waded into politics before. In 2010, the union called for the repeal of Arizona’s racist SB 1070 law targeting immigrants, but the following year, the MLBPA backed out of asking players to skip the All-Star Game in Phoenix. This time, the union should make a different choice.

No one should be under the impression that major leaguers can bring about the revolution or that a kinder, more socially conscious form of capitalism will result in liberation. But the example of North Carolina is instructive in how to hit a reactionary government where it hurts.

After the anti-trans, anti-worker HB 2 passed in North Carolina in 2016, the NBA moved its All-Star game out of Charlotte, and the NCAA yanked college championships from the state, a huge blow to a state where Duke and UNC basketball is often one of the hottest tickets in town. When legislators finally repealed the bill the next year it was only after the NCAA gave the state a deadline to repeal the law before it would lose events until 2022.

It took not one boycott to turn the tide against HB 2 but many across the private sector—to the tune of nearly $4 billion over the course of a year, as well as the election of Democrat Roy Cooper as governor eight months after the law was signed and made North Carolina a national laughingstock. But the potential of college championships for five full years finally pushed the state government, which had for years shown clear disdain for voters, to nominally “repeal” HB 2.

And for a time, the response to HB 2 scared off the many states considering similar, outwardly bigoted legislation from passing it. Though dozens of bills targeting public accommodations for trans people and pre-empting local government protections for trans people for were considered around the time of HB 2’s passage, North Carolina’s was ultimately the only one that made it into law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are equally important lessons here on the flip side: the “repeal” bill was a betrayal of trans people and a miserable failure for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was the fiasco of a botched repeal attempt in December where Republicans quite literally yanked the football away from Cooper and the Charlotte City Council before he was even sworn in as governor.

And by no means did that mean the boycotts helped win a war. On the contrary, we’re now seeing something arguably even more insidious: an avalanche of new bills mostly targeting transgender kids and their access to healthcare, such as the new law passed in Arkansas. The “bathroom bills” are coming back too.

But it’s undeniable that HB 2 made a fool out of North Carolina. And for a while, other states were discouraged from making the same mistake out of fear of the same kind of financial self-sabotage, if not national mockery.

There’s a reason boycott campaigns have been seen as mortal threats by oppressive states from South Africa to Israel: because they have an impact. They quickly and efficiently define their targets as toxic, and they make the stakes immediately clear. The Republican Party is currently pushing the next phase of its Jim Crow revival all across the country; it has more than earned the same enmity, and it is more than worthy of the same tactics.

By publicly threatening a boycott and following through with if necessary, the baseball players union can help boost the fight for voting rights in the public consciousness as the Senate considers passing the biggest package of voting rights and election reforms since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Because of the prominence of sports and the intentional erasure of labor unions from American public life, the MLBPA has a voice disproportionately larger than other unions relative to the size of its membership. It’s time for the union to get off the bench and make it count.

Update, 3:06 p.m. ET: Well, that was fast.

Update, 3:53 p.m. ET: As noted above, Manfred announced that the MLB would relocate the All-Star Game from Atlanta. But the league has by no means fulfilled its obligations. As noted, the Georgia legislature isn’t likely to repeal the new law based on the loss of the All-Star Game alone, and the MLB should make it known that this will go for Texas and Arizona (and any other state) if they try the same move. If nothing works, the MLB and other major sports leagues should consider a ban on all-star and postseason sports in Georgia entirely until the law is repealed.

 Still, it’s sort of shocking to see this so soon after Manfred mentioned only “preliminary” talks about the All-Star Game and what to do about it. And it’s an important first step by the MLB, in which the union played a major role. Considering the response to SB 1070, it’s more evidence that players, teams, and leagues have begun to understand over the past decade that they can’t abstain from politics anymore. You can’t be something called “America’s pastime” and also be silent on what’s happening in America.