Pulled by public opinion and sometimes their own players, leagues and teams are wading in to issues around race and social activism as never before.
For major American sports leagues that long have taken pains to stay out of divisive issues around race and social activism, the past few years have seen a remarkable awakening.
Top leagues and their multimillionaire stars have come out forcefully and publicly against police brutality and gun violence, and just as strongly in support of L.G.B.T.Q. causes and the right of their players to kneel during the national anthem. Players have spoken at protest marches, and leagues have bankrolled new social-justice efforts. In Georgia, a professional women’s basketball team actively campaigned against its owner, a sitting Republican Senator, before last year’s November elections, and in doing so helped flip control of the chamber to Democrats.
Still, it was striking when, after days of mounting pressure, the Major League Baseball Commissioner, Rob Manfred, announced on Friday that the league would pull the 2021 All-Star Game out of suburban Atlanta in a rebuke of a new Georgia voting law that critics have predicted would disenfranchise Black voters.
Relocating the game — an expensive logistical hassle, and a move that even baseball’s players did not universally support — was a watershed moment for a sport long known more for its traditionalism and its aversion to risk.
Baseball, which until 1947 barred Black players from its teams, was drawn into American sports activism through pioneering figures like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. But more recently, it was also a sport that balked at calls to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona over a contentious immigration law, and stood aside as one of its franchises defended an insensitive team name and another allowed its fans to continue using a chant widely viewed as racist.
Baseball was the last of the major American sports leagues to acknowledge the killing of George Floyd last year — waiting a full nine days. But it embraced the Black Lives Matter movement when it returned to the field last summer, and by the fall it had volunteered its shuttered stadiums as early voting sites.
The All-Star Game and its week of festivities were set to include celebrations of the legacy of the Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron, a civil rights icon who died earlier this year. But by Friday, Manfred said, he had concluded that moving the game and baseball’s annual draft out of Georgia were “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport.”
Over the past five years, sports has embraced an activism that has quietly revealed a power shift from the rich, mostly white men who run them to the not-quite-as-rich, mostly nonwhite athletes who compete in them.
Activism’s arrival in sports is not new, of course. From baseball’s Robinson to boxing’s Muhammad Ali to football’s Colin Kaepernick to soccer’s Megan Rapinoe, athletes have long pressed social-justice causes important to them and their communities. But the breadth and the public nature of the efforts over the past year, as social justice protests swept the nation on the eve of a presidential election, have shown the willingness of leagues, teams and athletes to engage in debates and take positions they had often avoided.
Sometimes the shift was done reluctantly, the result of national politics or changing public opinion. Sometimes teams and leagues were prodded to act by their own players. But Friday showed once again that sports isn’t simply entertainment in a vacuum.
“Throughout the year, there’s been a lot of things going on not only with the pandemic but as a society,” Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox Manager, told reporters on Friday. “They moved it for the right reasons.”
It was only five years ago that Kaepernick’s decision to quietly kneel during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality sparked stiff disapproval from some team owners and criticism from a strident part of the white fan base. But eventually, even N.F.L. owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, who once ordered his players not to kneel during the national anthem, were joining them in the gesture on the sidelines.
And players, aware that their wealth and their stature gave them a valuable megaphone aided by social media, kept pressing. After Jacob Blake, a Black man, was left paralyzed by the police in Kenosha, Wis., the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take part in a playoff game in August in Orlando, Fla. Within hours, dozens of other teams in other leagues had joined the work stoppage. Within days, the basketball players emerged from a meeting with N.B.A. officials with new commitments that it would join their fight against social injustice.
Some players went beyond causes to overtly political acts like campaigning for specific candidates. In the W.N.B.A., players on the Atlanta Dream became so infuriated by the statements by the team’s co-owner, the Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, about the Black Lives Matter movement that they actively campaigned for her opponent, Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, wearing T-shirts with his name onto the court. Loeffler lost the election, sweeping not just her opponent but also another Democrat running in the state to victory.
The two victories gave Democrats, under President Biden, control of the nation’s legislative agenda, and the momentum to push for some of the progressive causes the players held dear.
There were many factors, though, that made M.L.B.’s action on Friday unique. While major league club owners are no different than their counterparts in professional basketball or football in being a largely Republican donor set, the demographics on the field are starkly different. The sport’s fan base is older and less racially diverse than basketball’s and football’s. The majority of major league players are white, and many trend conservative in their personal politics. (Roughly 30 percent of M.L.B. players are Latino, most of them from outside the United States; only 8 percent are Black.)
Frustrated by the sense that they are invisible in their sport, some Black players grumbled when M.L.B. took more than a week to address the killing of Mr. Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May, and as the ensuing protests over his death — and other Black Americans — quickly spread across the nation. By opening day last July, though, baseball’s leaders had ceded the floor to players to organize on-field demonstrations. The league provided Black Lives Matter shirts for players to wear, and teams were allowed to paint a BLM logo on the back of the pitcher’s mound — an unmistakable sign of solidarity for television viewers.
And in September, Major League Baseball — and the players’ union — pledged $10 million to the Players Alliance, a nonprofit made up of more than 100 current and former Black players. The group was among those Manfred spoke with this week before announcing his decision to move the All-Star Game.
“We will not be silenced,” the Players Alliance wrote in a statement on Twitter on Friday, decrying the Georgia law and how it paved the way for similar legislation elsewhere. “We won’t back down in the fight for racial equality. We will never stop breaking barriers to the ballot box.”
For baseball, the groundswell against its hosting the All-Star Game in July at the Atlanta Braves’ stadium, Truist Park, grew as Manfred worked the phones this week. As political activists and important corporate partners of the Braves like Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola spoke out against the voting law, Manfred held conversations with team owners and the players’ union and current and former players, but he didn’t require a formal vote of approval for his decision. In fact, the union hadn’t yet finished canvassing players when Manfred made his announcement. Some players, such as the Braves star Freddie Freeman, advocated in recent days for the game to stay in Atlanta, so it could serve as a platform for a discussion about voting rights.
In a rare public rebuke of M.L.B. by a team, the Braves said they were “deeply disappointed” by Manfred’s announcement that he would move the game, and called businesses, employees and fans in Georgia “victims” of his decision.
Other teams, though, stood just as strongly behind Manfred.
The Miami Marlins part owner Derek Jeter, a Hall of Fame former player and the only nonwhite chief executive in baseball, released a statement that supported Manfred’s decision and noted that his team in November had engaged in an activity — providing meals to voters at a polling place — that is now illegal in Georgia. And the Baltimore Orioles chief executive, John Angelos, released a statement with Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore, who had lobbied earlier in the day to host the All-Star Game. “As the birthplace of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, we stand united with Commissioner Manfred in denouncing this malicious legislative effort to suppress voters in Georgia and other state legislatures,” they said.
Although no active player had publicly called for a boycott of the All-Star Game, Manfred understood what could happen if Atlanta remained the host city, a baseball official said. The tributes to Aaron would have celebrated perhaps the greatest Black player in history. But if the event remained in Atlanta, players and coaches might be faced with questions about whether they would take part or stay away to protest the voting law.
Dave Roberts, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager, who is Black and Asian-American, had said last week that he would consider declining the honor of managing the National League team. But on Friday, he sounded relieved.
“For the commissioner, to kind of do his due diligence in baseball, outside of baseball, players, front office, and ultimately make a decision to remove the All-Star Game and the draft out of the state of Georgia, I support,” he told reporters.
A star in another sport was equally thrilled. “Proud to call myself a part of the @mlb family today,” LeBron James of the N.B.A.’s Los Angeles Lakers wrote on Twitter, quietly reminding fans that he had completed his purchase of a stake in the Boston Red Sox this week.
The voting organization that James launched last year, More Than a Vote, went further: It noted that it had called on Georgia lawmakers to drop the voting bill during the recent N.B.A. All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, and it cautioned other states contemplating similar measures.
“All the states still considering voter suppression bills should take note,” the organization warned in a Twitter post citing the M.L.B. All-Star relocation. “Actions have consequences.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.