“Congratulations to Major League Baseball for taking a stand on behalf of voting rights for all citizens,” former President Barack Obama said. “There’s no better way for America’s pastime to honor the great Hank Aaron, who always led by example.”
That view, shared by President Joe Biden, is an understandable response to baseball’s decision to pull its July All-Star Game out of Georgia, after Georgia adopted a series of restrictive rules clearly designed to depress Black turnout.
It’s also decidedly short-sighted. If Major League Baseball was truly worried about protecting the ability to vote in Georgia—and making sure Georgia’s disenfranchised voters weren’t silenced—there was a much, much better way to act: Bring the full force of baseball’s celebrity power to bear on Georgia itself.
At the purely symbolic level, it’s understandable why MLB made its decision, and why liberals around the country were high-fiving each other about it. Though Georgia’s new law did not embrace the most draconian proposals of some of its Republican legislators—and there are actually bright spots, such as expanded early voting days, including some weekends— the cluster of new rules and tougher ID requirements are aimed at one goal: making it harder for likely Democratic voters to exercise their franchise. What’s worse is that the legislature has effectively given itself the power to overrule local and county officials, and in effect decide for itself who has won. Had such laws been in effect last November, the legislature could have, and likely would have, awarded the state’s electoral votes to Donald Trump.
So the decision of Major League Baseball to act was right, in an abstract, pro-democracy moral sense. But politics isn’t just about parading your virtue. It’s about real outcomes—getting real people to really vote—and by that standard, what the league did was to ignore a heaven-sent opportunity to actually do something concrete.
This isn’t about the economic damage to rank-and-file Georgians, although that’s not trivial; Cobb County’s Tourism CEO says it will cost the region $100 million. It’s about a missed opportunity to make a difference. There’s a reason that Georgia’s notably successful grassroots Black Democratic political figures, Stacey Abrams and Senator Raphael Warnock, both were cool to the boycott. The real loss is what the All-Star Game could have meant to the effort to mobilize against that law.
Consider this alternative: The All-Star Game stays in Georgia. But the event—a three-day affair—is built around a multi-front campaign to address the restrictions imposed by the new law. None of it would need to be framed as partisan. It would be purely pro-voting, pro-democracy—an equal-opportunity push to be sure the good old-fashioned American election process worked.
The example of Wisconsin in 2020 suggests that voter-restriction efforts can trigger huge blowback if they’re sufficiently publicized—and there’s almost no organization that could shine more sunlight on the situation, and reach more people, than a major sports league. The players fan out across the state, holding rallies to highlight the restrictions in the law, if possible at locations near voter registration offices. People attending are given detailed instructions about how to apply for government-issued IDs. A series of speeches and panels, much like the National Basketball Association offers during its All-Star event, highlights exactly how Georgia’s new law in fact imposes serious burdens on the franchise.
Along with these programs, fundraising events featuring the players could have raised serious sums of money to fund nonpartisan efforts to get prospective voters registered, and to pay for broadcast and digital advertising spelling out the malevolent intent and effect of these new rules. And across the state, in urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods, election law experts would let Democratic and Republican voters alike learn how the state legislature has effectively gutted the nonpartisan machinery of vote-counting, giving itself the power to overturn the will of the voters and declare winners and losers on its own.
That kind of response would have avoided the ill will of a pullout, which is going to make life harder for Georgia Democrats like Abrams and Warnock without actually doing anything to counteract the law. It would have spared the Atlanta region the economic hit, preserved the planned tribute to Atlanta Braves great Hank Aaron, and, most importantly, would have used the media focus on the game as a way to educate and to take direct action without turning a baseball game into a political football. It also could have spurred institutions in Georgia and in other states where legislatures are taking similar steps to gut the right to vote.
Of course, there’s an argument that the MLB’s pullout isn’t about Georgia: It’s more effective as a warning to Republican legislatures in other states not to ram through their own versions of the Georgia voting law. But if that’s the point of the All-Star game pullout, then it’s a double-edged sword. Boycotts may work for movie companies that won’t shoot in states with restrictive laws, or for conventions and gatherings that can move their events elsewhere. But there are clear limits: Coca-Cola will not shut down its Atlanta operation; American Airlines will not move its major hub out of Dallas; and issuing statements really doesn’t change the terrain. Further, as Georgia has showed with its cancellation of a $50 million tax break for Delta after the airline had criticized the new law, legislatures have powerful retaliatory weapons.
By contrast, major corporate players across the country could throw serious money into voter registration efforts; they could assist voters in obtaining IDs, as they now do with blood drives and charitable giving. It would be very hard for Governor Brian Kemp, Trump and other worthies to attack such efforts, or for legislatures to punish companies for launching nonpartisan voter assistance, unless they were willing to drop the mask and say (as some GOP officials have): We really don’t want the wrong kind of people to vote.
But maybe the league felt that it would face attacks from the left for anything other than boycott. Maybe they feared that many of its stars wouldn’t embrace the idea of using the game as a launch pad for a push for new voters. Or maybe the urge to make a hasty gesture—something that saved face for MLB without forcing it any closer to the issue—was too tempting. So, faced with a hanging curve, baseball whiffed.