Bud Selig Gets it Wrong Again

Major League Baseball's Bud Selig has long been the most tone-deaf commissioner in major North American sports (sorry, Gary Bettman). His reign has been far from a total failure, and he has legitimate successes to point to, but he also has The Steroid Era, contraction, the 1994 player strike, the 2002 All-Star Game, and any number of less serious stains on his résumé.

The latest entry in the log probably belongs in that "less serious" category — at least from a baseball business standpoint — but it's a perfect illustration of all the ways in which Selig is a lousy commissioner. MLB's 2011 All-Star Game is scheduled to be played in Arizona, where a new immigration law that has been widely described as "draconian" (S.B. 1070) has prompted vocal condemnation from players and coaches, including a statement from the players' union condemning the new law.

MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said Arizona's law "could have a negative impact on hundreds of major league players who are citizens of countries other than the United States." Ozzie Guillen said he wouldn't participate if the game stays in Arizona. So did all-star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Speculation is that other Hispanic players and coaches might do the same. When Dan Patrick asked Angels outfielder Torii Hunter if the All-Star Game might be in jeopardy because of Latin players staying away, Hunter answered, "Spring training could be in jeopardy," since many teams hold spring training in the state.

Players and officials in other leagues have already taken action against the new policy. The NBA Players Association "strongly supports the repeal or immediate modification of [S.B. 1070]." Billy Hunter, the Executive Director of the NBPA, called it "incompatible with basic notions of fairness and equal protection". The World Boxing Council was even more stern in its condemnation of the new legislation, calling it "shameful, inhumane, and discriminatory". The WBC put its money where its mouth is, agreeing unanimously not to authorize Mexican boxers to compete in Arizona.

Perhaps most notably, the NBA's Phoenix Suns wore their "Los Suns" jerseys on Cinco de Mayo to show support for Arizona's hispanic community and to indicate their opposition to S.B. 1070. Two-time league MVP Steve Nash called the law "very misguided," adding, "Our Latino community here is very strong and important to us." The San Antonio Spurs were similarly supportive, and tried to wear their own "Los Spurs" jerseys for the same game, though it proved too late to do so.

Obviously, the new law boasts supporters as well as detractors, but it disproportionately affects athletes and sports fans. Twenty years ago, the NFL moved Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to California after the state chose not to recognize Martin Luther King Day. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue recognized that more than half of the league was African-American: "Many of our players regard Martin Luther King as a role model. We're encouraging them to be role models, and I think it would be unfair to ask them to go play their championship game in that state."

Nearly a third of MLB rosters are comprised of Hispanics. In the minors, it's closer to half. Selig, unlike Tagliabue, is hoping no one will notice if he does nothing. He even issued a statement that was at once snide, self-righteous, and defensive: "Apparently all the people around and in minority communities think we're doing okay. That's the issue, and that's the answer. I told the clubs today: 'Be proud of what we've done.' They are. We should. And that's our answer. We control our own fate, and we've done very well."

That's classic Bud Selig. You don't have to disagree with Arizona's law to recognize that Selig is falling into the same pattern that's gotten him into trouble so many times before. Keeping the game in Arizona and hoping the problem goes away is the most conservative position he could have taken. I don't mean 'conservative' in the political sense, as contrasted with 'liberal' or 'progressive;' I mean conservative as the opposite of bold, daring, decisive, proactive. Selig isn't a leader; he's a suit. Even from a pure business standpoint, I don't see the logic in Selig's position. He has a better chance of growing the game by reaching out to Hispanics than catering to anti-immigration hard-liners.

Proponents of the Arizona law claim it's inappropriate for a sports league to take sides in a political issue. Nonsense. Sports and politics have a long history: Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente, Billie Jean King, South Africa's ban on Olympic participation during apartheid, the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow ... the list goes on, highlighted by a moment in MLB's own history. In 1947, the Dodgers moved their spring training from Florida because Jackie Robinson faced harassment there.

The Olympic ban on South Africa was an overtly political decision with clear moral high ground. Boycotts and divestment are powerful tools, and played a substantial role in bringing change to South Africa. Arizona voters approved recognition of the MLK holiday almost immediately after Tagliabue and the NFL moved the Super Bowl. Last year's MLB All-Star weekend yielded an estimated $60 million for host city St. Louis. That's the kind of money a state really doesn't want to pass up.

Some opposition to the proposed boycotts comes from people who fail to grasp the most basic tenets of economics, complaining that in a weak economy, a boycott would be too damaging financially. That's a flawed argument on several levels. First of all, we don't do the right thing only when it's convenient. Truth be told, a period of financial instability is the ideal time for a boycott, because that's when it creates the most pressure. And the aggrieved party can end the boycott at any time by changing its behavior.

Furthermore, if MLB takes its multi-million-dollar show to another state, it will boost the economy of California, or Ohio, or Texas instead. Moving the All-Star Game wouldn't remove the boost to economy, it would simply transfer it to another part of the country. Arizona is hardly the only place that could use $60 million.

But that's beside the point. The issue here is Selig: an uninspiring, uninspired, and unfailingly tone-deaf commissioner, who wouldn't recognize an opportunity for bold leadership if it stepped on his foot. When it became obvious that steroid use was a problem in baseball, Selig could've stormed the ramparts to push for changes in the league's policy, or at least made sure people knew where he stood by openly acknowledging the problem. Instead, he spent years denying the obvious and defending MLB's standards. When the '02 All-Star Game ran out of players, Selig could have reacted the same way as his sport's fans, with outrage. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and effectively gave us a "What can you do?" His bold leadership involved tying homefield advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game.

Today, Selig has an opportunity to not only do the right thing, but also the smart thing. Today, Selig has an opportunity to grow baseball's international popularity, and to recognize that his sport's fan base is increasingly dependent on the group most likely to be negatively affected by the Arizona legislation. Today, Selig has an opportunity to stand with the people from whom he earns his living. Since that '02 All-Star debacle, MLB has named 16 league MVPs, half of them Hispanic.

Instead, he has chosen to do nothing, burying his head in the sand and hoping the issue goes away. It's familiar ground for a man who is so used to not acting that he can't seem to recognize that sometimes risks bring rewards. If ever a languid, unhip sport had a fitting head, surely Selig and baseball fit the bill. The game deserves better, and so do its players and fans.

Comments and Conversation

May 20, 2010

Anthony Brancato:

Is Boston getting an All-Star Game anytime soon? If so, might the laws permitting same-sex marriage in Massachusetts become grounds for moving that game? True, evangelical Christianity is not as pervasive in MLB as it is in the NFL, but anyone can see where this could lead - just as the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow catalyzed a counter-boycott of the Games in Los Angeles four years later.

Is this where we want to go?

We all better take more than a few deep breaths, and think this out, long and hard.

May 20, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Anthony, you obviously don’t understand the issue.

MLB players and coaches who travel to Arizona could be harassed or arrested under the new law — they are personally affected by it. People who travel to DC or Massachusetts or any other state whose policies they dislike don’t face adverse consequences as a result. It’s not like you get off the plane at Logan and have to have a gay wedding. Land in Phoenix after this law goes into efffect, though, and you or your family could be subject to racial profiling. Arizona has created an environment that is decidedly unfriendly to a large percentage of MLB players.This is about players and coaches doing the right thing for themselves, and the league working against them rather than with them.

More to the point, this incident is illustrative of Bud Selig’s M.O. in any situation like this: see no evil, hear no evil. He keeps his head down and hopes the problem goes away by itself. It didn’t happen with steroids, and it’s probably not going to happen here.

May 20, 2010

Anthony Brancato:

Are the two scenarios exactly analogous? Of course not. All I was suggesting is that there is a very real danger of sliding down a slippery slope with all this; and let’s not engage in this lurid nonsense about Alex Rodriguez getting pulled over and asked to show his “papers.”

Then again, Bud Selig should never have been allowed to serve as baseball commissioner due to conflict-of-interest issues - but I suppose that’s a suitable topic for a different article entirely.

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