Rob Manfred says MLB wants to be 'apolitical.' But that's just not possible in 2021

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HOUSTON – On the first day of the World Series, commissioner Rob Manfred said of Major League Baseball, “We always have tried to be apolitical.”

First of all, that is demonstrably untrue. The league has a Supreme Court-granted antitrust exemption. MLB funds politicians through a PAC, and team owners contribute through their personal wealth. And yet still taxpayers subsidize stadiums. The league spent millions lobbying Congress for legal protection to underpay its minor leaguers, resulting in a provision in a spending bill signed by President Donald Trump. And when it suspended political contributions in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol, was that not an act of politics?

This is not some shameful secret — well, not in a vacuum, anyway. As essentially the sole proprietors (there’s that Supreme Court decision at work) of a multibillion-dollar industry, MLB is a grown-up business, very much in bed with local and national politicians, that’s being bolstered by a kid’s games. That part is nothing new. It is patently ridiculous to claim otherwise when political machinations are the rule and not the exception for how the industry operates.

Of course, that’s not really what Manfred was talking about. And that’s not why he was asked about it ahead of Game 1 between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves.

The wonky stuff that doesn’t make headlines is undeniable but largely uncontroversial to the average fan. He wasn’t referring to the literal intermingling between MLB and political actors when he justified the aspiration of an apolitical stance saying, “We have a fan base that's diverse and has different points of view. And we'd like to keep the focus on the field, on the game.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 26:  A fan holds a sign stating
An Astros fan at World Series Game 1 brought a sign decrying Braves' fans customary Tomahawk Chop cheer for being racist toward Native Americans. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The way that a segment of that fan base cheers for its baseball team is not inherently politics, for instance. But in a country where politics are increasingly a proxy for the culture wars, and the division between parties dominates our cultural conversations, it is political.

He wasn’t referring to the minutia of laws, for instance, but rather the radical motivation behind them and the inescapable reaction to them when he alluded to a midseason drama that has been reignited by the affiliation between a team competing for a championship and the regional politics it can’t help but represent.

“Obviously, there was a notable exception this year,” he said, referencing the league’s decision to relocate the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia’s passage of a new voting bill — purported to root out election fraud that has been proven to be nonexistent or negligible, the bill effectively restricted voting access in direct response to right-wing furor over the results of the 2020 election.

That decision wasn’t even necessarily about politics, it was about the political controversy that would inevitably envelop the game and the players who participated (or who opted not to) if the league left the Midsummer Classic where it was. Acting or not acting: either would have been seen as a referendum on a highly charged subject indicative of moral values. And when the Braves advanced to the World Series, opportunistic politicians took the opportunity to lash out at the political opposition and celebrate what they saw as some sort of karmic retribution for … the intermingling of sports and politics.

So what does apolitical even mean in that situation?

“I think our desire is to try to avoid another exception to that general rule,” Manfred said of a pipe dream plan to sidestep such paradoxes going forward.

Baseball is culture and culture wars are the battleground of modern politics. To move within the milieu at all is to be forced to navigate the battle lines drawn around social issues and reality. Pandemic prevention is politics. Health care in general is politics. “Fundamentally [supporting] voting rights for all Americans,” as Manfred said in the statement issued about the All-Star Game relocation, is politics. Promoting anti-bullying initiatives specifically designed to protect vulnerable LGBTQ+ youth is politics. Symbolically backing your Black players when they say their lives matter is politics. Not being racist is politics. The very idea of racism is, increasingly, absurdly, politics.

It’s naive to think those issues are new, but the long, slow bend toward social progress has pushed them to the forefront of a polarized discourse inflamed by bad-faith actors leveraging fear for political gain.

In light of that, is it even possible to avoid politics as a sports league?

“Let me say this,” Manfred said. “It's harder than it used to be. It sure is.”

The political landmine awaiting the World Series this week is the Tomahawk Chop cheer that Braves fans engage in at Truist Park, and that the Braves themselves encourage or at least condone with their in-stadium programming.

Amid a broader reconsideration of Native American appropriation in sports that has seen team names rooted in racist stereotypes abandoned — next season the Cleveland Indians will become the Cleveland Guardians — the chop is divisive. Some Native American groups say that it is an insensitive caricaturization of a long subjugated culture, some Braves fans say those people are wrong to feel how they do, or else don’t matter.

When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, explained why it was “disrespectful” ahead of a 2019 postseason game in Atlanta, the Braves toned down the chop and said at the time that they would “continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience.”

A “Chop On” sign was removed, and the team stopped handing out foam tomahawks that dovetailed with the chant. But with fans back in parks this year, the chop has resumed in full force. And on Monday, Manfred defended it.

“We have 30 markets around the country. They're not all the same,” Manfred said. “The Native American community in that region is fully supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. And for me, that's kind of the end of the story.”

The Braves have incorporated more educational promotion of their Native American heritage and curried the oft-cited support of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with whom they have a business relationship. But it was the regional marketing aspect that Manfred expanded upon.

“We don't market our game on a nationwide basis,” he said (despite the obvious benefit of being able to do so). “Ours is an everyday game, you’ve got to sell tickets every single day to the fans in that market. And there are all sorts of differences among the clubs among the regions as to how the games are marketed.”

It’s a strangely specific explanation. It implies that what is and is not problematic in a sports cheer is determined not by some universal truth or comprehensive policy, but rather the political/social ecosystem it exists in. That is absolutely, if unfortunately, true. The chop has become a flashpoint for the raging culture wars shaping and shaped by the political environment. It will be abandoned or not in response to that — just another example of the inexorable relationship between sports and politics.

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