What does MLB’s decision mean for democratic politics? In my work, I argue that everyday institutions like baseball deserve more attention. Political scientists understandably focus on formal political institutions. But democracy is much bigger than formal, elite politics.
What does it mean to be a spectator — and how does that affect democracy?
Many think of being a spectator — or in my framing, “spectatorship” — as passive and essentially the opposite of political engagement or action, which would suggest the MLB’s action is anomalous. But in my research, using baseball as a case study, I find sports spectatorship can actually shape and invigorate democratic politics — and the MLB’s decision is only a recent example of that political engagement.
Indeed, baseball is political primarily because millions of fans follow and care about the sport. That makes it a large, visible platform — which inevitably means the sport becomes a political site.
Perhaps the most famous American instance would be the Brooklyn Dodgers’ hiring of Jackie Robinson in 1945, breaking the color barrier in baseball long before the United States passed landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But even before Robinson, many other immigrant groups integrated into society through playing and watching baseball. For example, others have shown that Joe DiMaggio and others played such a role for Italian Americans. Like the United States, MLB has many issues when it comes to racial equality, but it has been an important platform for race politics in America.
The power of this community often emerges after a crisis. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series, making a rhetorical appeal to American values that Americans show resilience through preserving our pastimes. Similarly, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Red Sox held a community rally at the next home game; beloved slugger David Ortiz brought spectators to their feet when he declared “This is our … city” and echoed the phrase “Boston Strong.”
In my work, I also examine how baseball can shape and mirror not only politics around community, but also inequality, virtue and technology. The sport does not always promote democratic values, but it is a platform for contesting political issues.
Moving the All-Star Game as protest
Moving the All-Star Game in protest of Georgia’s new law shows baseball’s role in democratic politics. According to industry sources, MLB made the decision for a variety of reasons, including pressure from sponsors and fear of a player boycott.
In a statement, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said moving the game was “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport.” He added:
Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. … We proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.
MLB’s action not only prompted responses from prominent politicians, but it also alerted ordinary citizens and baseball fans to important efforts to restrict voting. Fans who might otherwise ignore such laws will hear about them because of baseball, forcing them to engage with political events.
That said, MLB is not a democratic organization. The commissioner represents the owners, not the sport generally; demographically, baseball fans tend to be older, wealthier and Whiter than those following other sports.
On the other hand, by pulling the game in protest over the law, MLB will levy economic damage on average Georgians, who will suffer from the law’s restricted access to the vote — as pointed out by Stacey Abrams, the founder of Fair Fight and a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate. Still, the MLB’s decision will draw attention to voter suppression efforts in Georgia and beyond.
Expanding our understanding of democracy
This incident suggests political scientists may wish to think more expansively about which institutions affect democracy. Even an organization like MLB can be pressured to back pro-democracy measures — like equal access to the vote — because it relies on support of spectators. Many formal U.S. political institutions do not necessarily behave in democratic ways, Georgia’s voter suppression law reveals. The Senate is designed to give an expanded voice to less populous states. Many states have drawn House districts in gerrymandered ways that make it harder to elect Democrats than Republicans. Unelected judges have immense power. In many ways, the U.S. political system constrains the majority and gives certain minority groups more power than others.
Focusing only on formal, elite politics is antidemocratic. Democracy includes the meaningful discourse and citizen engagement in sport, art, film, culture and beyond — places that are often where average, everyday citizens confront political issues.
Thomas David Bunting (@ThomasDBunting) is an assistant professor of political science at Shawnee State University and author of the forthcoming “Democracy at the Ballpark: Sport Spectatorship, and Politics” (SUNY Press, October 2021).