On May 3, nine U.S sports unions released a joint statement expressing their opposition to legislative efforts in certain states to restrict the right to vote. The Major League Baseball Players Association was not one of those unions. Nor did the MLBPA comment publicly when commissioner Rob Manfred took the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to the passing of a law in Georgia that critics say is likely to disproportionately limit the voting rights of Black people.
The union declined comment when asked why it was not part of the joint statement from the other sports unions, which was co-signed by associations representing players from the NBA, NFL, MLS and United States Women’s National Soccer team, among others. The reasons for the MLBPA’s position seem clear: Its members hold a wide range of viewpoints on voting-rights legislation, and the union does not want to be drawn into a political discussion that might divide its members in a year when it is preparing to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball. Many players, particularly in today’s polarized climate, believe it is not their place to weigh in on politics.
The division within the union almost certainly breaks down at least partly along racial lines. More than 60 percent of the pool of 906 players on Opening Day rosters, including active players and those on injured, restricted or paternity lists, were White Americans. Of that group, a significant percentage, if not an outright majority, is believed to lean Republican. And the new laws on voting rights are largely a Republican response to Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the presidential election.
The MLBPA, then, is in a different spot than the NBA union, which is comprised of 74.2 percent Black players, or the NFL union, which is 57.5 percent Black. (The NHL union, which also did not sign the joint statement, is only 27 percent American.) Yet, Manfred also is a Republican, and the baseball owners perhaps lean even more Republican than the players. So, why was Manfred willing to take a stand, saying the league, “fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” when the union was not?
The league’s motives were not solely altruistic. Manfred knew some players might boycott the All-Star game if it had remained in Atlanta, and likely feared major corporate sponsors might pull out as well. Either or both outcomes would have cast the sport in a negative light, and also resulted in potential financial damage. By moving the game to Denver, Manfred also spared players from months of questions about whether they would participate, putting an end to that conversation before it could even start.
His decision, then, was perhaps more pragmatic than political. It certainly was not one-dimensional. In the end, Manfred took the stand he believed would best serve the league’s interests, knowing he would face backlash either way. And the backlash was furious, from inside and outside the sport. Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick spoke out against Manfred’s decision. Republican political leaders not only attacked the commissioner, but also introduced legislation to remove MLB’s protection from antitrust laws, which no other professional sports league enjoys.