Major League Baseball’s recent decision to move the 2021 All-Star game out of Atlanta—made to protest the Georgia state legislature’s recent voting rights act—has earned the scorn of Republican party leaders who maintain that sports should remain out of the political arena.
These party leaders have also criticized the growing number of American corporations who have spoken out against other state legislature attempts to limit voting access, cynically deciding these previous sources of political donations are no longer fit to speak out on the democratic process.
Based on these reactions, it appears the Republican Party is trapped in a different time, unable or unwilling to recognize how the country has evolved since 1970—a year that established benchmarks for measuring how far professional sports teams and corporations have changed the way they conduct business.
Former president Donald Trump has led the GOP’s expression of outrage with both Major League Baseball and corporate America, claiming that Americans should “Boycott baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with free and fair elections. Are you listening Coke, Delta, and all?”
He went on to further criticize MLB by saying “Baseball is already losing tremendous numbers of fans, and now they leave Atlanta because they are afraid of the radical left Democrats.”
As with other issues that make up Trump’s MAGA approach, this Republican perspective on the right to protest reflects a yearning for a bygone era; in this case, to a time when both MLB and corporate America interacted in a completely different manner than they do today with employees, customers, shareholders, and social responsibilities.
One need only look back to the year 1970 to see how far professional baseball and businesses have evolved in this regard. In that year, two widely disparate individuals—one a professional ball player and the other an influential conservative economist—played important roles in determining how these two institutions were eventually expected to operate in American society.
I contend this evolution is obvious to most Americans, but has either escaped the attention of the Republican Party leadership or is being intentionally ignored in the hopes of successfully passing more state legislative bills capable of limiting voter access.
In January 1970, Curt Flood, then an outfielder with the St Louis Cardinals, filed a $1 million lawsuit against MLB, alleging violation of federal antitrust laws when he was denied the opportunity to file for free agency. In doing so, Flood challenged MLB’s decades-old reserve clause—a part of a player’s contract which said the rights to players were retained by the team upon the contract’s expiration.
The reserve clause denied baseball players the right to enter into a contract with another team, and further allowed the player’s original team to trade, sell, or release the player at any time. Even though Flood—an African-American—was making $90,000 at the time, he compared the reserve clause to slavery.
Flood failed to win his case in front of the Supreme Court, but in 1975 the case was eventually overturned. The new ruling paved the way for free agency in all major professional sports leagues and subsequently led to the signing of more lucrative player contracts. The bargaining dynamics between owners and players quickly evolved, demanding that teams compete in more capitalistic fashion for players’ services.
Free agency forever changed the way professional sports team owners interacted with its employees. The value placed on players was greatly enhanced. The star quality of these athletes, and their related ability to draw fans, was finally acknowledged with multi-million dollar salaries. Flood’s notion of ballplayers as slaves, at least within the context he offered, was eliminated.
MLB’s decision to move the All-Star game out of Atlanta reflects the league’s still evolving relationship with its athletes—a far different one from 1970. In this particular case, it is an acknowledgment of respect for its many African American team members, many of whom voiced a desire to boycott the All-Star game if it remained in Georgia.
The decision also indicates the value MLB has placed on these employees’ contributions, so much so that the league’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, is willing to take the risk such a move could have on ticket sales. He is perhaps hoping the relationship between players and fans will prevent any negative consequences.
1970 was also the year conservative economist Milton Friedman famously attempted to define the purpose of corporations. In an article published in the New York Times, Friedman insisted the sole purpose of a corporation was to make money for its shareholders. This simple, streamlined idea essentially gave businesses permission to minimize the attention given to such concerns as employee well-being, customer satisfaction and societal responsibilities. According to Friedman, CEOs who chose to pursue goals other than profit were “unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”
Conservatives in the Republican Party enthusiastically accepted Friedman’s opinion, perceiving it as the equivalent of a burning bush message sent from above. However, in the years since 1970, corporations have been forced to consider an evolution in thought.
Making money for shareholders may still be the goal, but achieving the goal in this super competitive world environment is seen as a much more complex process. It requires corporations to constantly address not just shareholder profit demands, but also employee concerns (i.e., productive training, and a safe workplace), changing customer wants and needs, and a business’s responsibility to address societal concerns (i.e., diversity, animal rights, and the environment). There is a constant interplay behind all these corporation stakeholders and responsibilities, and how this interplay acts out often determines the likelihood of profit.
For example, a company like Bombas can still be profitable while donating a pair of socks to homeless shelters for every pair bought by customers, Netflix can pursue customer allegiance (and still make lots of money) by increasing its level of personalized services, and Google can dominate its competition and gain renown for the benefits provided to its highly recruited employees.
It’s 2021 and Republican leaders should not be shocked by either MLB’s All-Star game decision or the current wave of corporate protest. Despite the Trump-inspired MAGA desire for returning to 1970, professional sports teams and corporations have evolved too far to turn back the clock. These institutions have grown accustomed to exercising their judgment and determining how and when they will exercise their responsibilities to employees, customers, shareholders and society.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.