Stop me if this sounds at all familiar but the right wing has opened up a new flank in the culture wars, and yet again, the target of their spittle-flecked ire is a major sports league. After a slew of multinational, multibillion-dollar corporations located in Georgia expressed some mild concerns that a recently-passed bill would disenfranchise voters—and specifically Black Georgians—Major League Baseball decided to pull up stakes on Friday and move this year’s All-Star Game from Cobb County. (Reportedly, they’ve settled on Coors Field in Colorado, a state that boasts less restrictive voting laws.)
In response, diapers were filled. GOP politicians and various pundits decried the league for becoming “woke,” promising to excise the national pastime from their sports-watching diet and even calling for boycotts. On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee fired off a tweet accusing MLB of being in bed with communists, and former President Trump dialed up Newsmax to drowsily air a list of sour, fact-free grievances, including his difficulties figuring out which TV channels were currently broadcasting baseball games. This too, is hardly a recent trend. For years, the right has pitched a fit and swore they’d vote with their wallets whenever some brand, like Nike, for example, behaved in a way they found irksome.
Which sports remain, then, for a good, ethical conservative American to consume? The NFL’s out, according to those who nodded along dutifully during the five years Trump spent targeting football for having the temerity to offer tepid support of its majority-Black players. The same goes for the NBA, which was similarly the subject of much teeth-gnashing and garment-rendering by the dumbest and loudest voices on the right. I guess that leaves hockey among the four major pro sports, unless the NHL’s baby steps towards encouraging inclusivity crossed an uncrossable line.
It's almost like conservatives cannot stomach a sport beyond those wholly controlled by a single owner like UFC, which, thanks in no small part to Dana White, has ground its employees to a fine paste, went whole-hog for MAGA, and, shockingly, spawned more than a few QAnon enthusiasts in their ranks. Perhaps notably pro-Trump NASCAR will see an influx of fans and stem its decades-long decline. Hang on, NASCAR banned displays of the Confederate flag this summer and investigated a suspected instance of racial prejudice so they’re boycott-worthy, too.
Leaving aside the groaning, self-evident hypocrisies—a party that’s spent the last 60 years enabling nearly unfettered corporate power now furrowing its collective brow and issuing toothless threats, or pegging “cancel culture” as an imminent, existential threat only to return the favor the moment it’ll get any aspiring national figure a 10-minute hit on Fox News—this spate of anti-baseball posturing will amount to nothing. Just follow the money.
The NFL just inked a $100 billion extension of its TV rights; MLB re-upped with Turner Sports for over $3 billion; and even the NHL snagged a $2.8 billion contract with ESPN. Once the NBA’s and NCAA’s media deals expire in the next decade, they’re bound to reap a windfall, too. (Whether the sports TV bubble will eventually go pop is a question for another day.) It’s exhausting pointing out that actual baseball fans will continue to pack stadiums once, you know, stadiums can be safely packed again regardless of where a meaningless mid-summer exhibition is held. So is poking a hole in the flabby argument that needing identification to be allowed into a stadium is comparable to the right to vote in a democracy. A gaggle of well-dressed executives in well-lit boardrooms apparently are more than confident viewers will continue to tune in, cord-cutters notwithstanding. They’re right.
All of this high dudgeon will prove as central to the discourse as Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss within a matter of weeks—also non-controversies which, I believe, took place three and a half years ago. While we’re here, no, losing the All-Star Game will not cost Georgia $100 million. Major sporting events generate a minimal economic benefit, at best.
But I can’t help but find myself flabbergasted by conservatives shunning sports—or at least huffily proclaiming they’re doing so. You see, when I was a kid I fervently believed being good at sports was part and parcel of how a lad became a real man. Where and how I stumbled on this truism, I don’t know. It certainly didn’t come from my progressive parents. Unfortunately and to my eternal consternation, I was a lousy ballplayer. I could neither run fast or jump high and my spotty vision didn’t help matters, leaving me invariably picked last and shunted out to deep, roving right field. And I hated it. In theory, a Red Diaper Baby like me would have been gently disabused of the notion that sports and masculinity were and are intrinsically wedded. That there were plenty of other admirable qualities a person might possess which had nothing to do with a ball or stick of some sort.
I didn’t buy it. So I set to work, figuring like the scrappy middle infielders Tim McCarver praised during Mets broadcasts, I could hustle my way into something approaching respectability, or so I hoped. I enlisted my father—himself no great athlete, either—in this futile attempt to improve my shoddy skills. We flagged countless flies, chased grounders, and fired heaters over the middle on our Upper West Side cul-de-sac, all to see if pure will and grit could make up for my lack of God-given athletic ability.
Our neighbor, the author Robert Crichton, would occasionally growl “Shoulda had it!” from the stoop of his brownstone if and when I duffed a catch. At the time I wanted to strangle him. With the benefit of hindsight and a smidge of objectivity, in all honestly the scene must have been downright hilarious. In the end, all my sweaty grinding didn’t amount to much. Somehow I turned myself into a passable street hockey goalie, perhaps because I didn’t mind the pain. I didn't make the varsity baseball team, though, and only managed to snag a spot on my high school wrestling roster because of a dearth of willing participants. If memory serves, I won precisely one time, at a tournament in the Bronx when I told my opponent mid-match I was about to throw up. (I pinned him, scurried to the bathroom, and promptly puked.) Our coach, who looked and sounded exactly like a miniaturized version of late ’80s Nick Nolte, was impressed by my ingenuity and said I should repeat this One Clever Trick in the next match. I didn’t, and lost.
I mention this bit of personal history because I can’t help but find this spate of anti-sports whingeing ironic and definitely a little funny. Conservatives—including women like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—who I thought endorsed the same concept of what an ideal, rugged, manly man should be as I did at age 12, are promising to walk off in a snit the moment a league acts in a manner that doesn’t cater to their every whim. I can’t imagine doing the same.
Throughout all my years of fandom, it’s been clear that the politics of these leagues were often directly opposed to my own. None of it—the fawning militarism, the dipping into the public coffers for tax breaks and arena funding, the exploitation of labor, or the thudding bigotry—has been enough to get me to walk away. It’s fine, really. Rooting for and helping enrich teams owned by all manner of leathery oil barons, cynical real estate magnates, and finance industry ghouls has meant frequently kitty-cornering my ethical and political concerns. That’s a compromise I’m willing to make, because I still love the games. And whatever form my fandom has taken in adulthood has long since been detached from any youthful macho misconceptions.
For those on the other side of the aisle, I don’t know what else to say aside from this: Man up, guys.