The official attendance of the Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star game on July 12, 2011 was recorded at 47,994. However, just outside the entrance gates to Chase Field, other groups of people congregated. One group quietly handed out white ribbons, while another carried signs and rallied around chants such as “You can’t hide, we can see your racist side!”
It was an impressive effort, but, ultimately, didn’t make much of an impression. The game was sold out. The highlight reels that evening showed Adrian Gonzalez’s home run and Heath Bell’s “goofy” slide on the pitcher’s mound. The demonstrations were mentioned as an afterthought, if at all.
The two groups were protesting the fact that the 2011 All-Star Game was being held in Arizona, a state that had just passed State Bill 1070 (S.B. 1070). Officially known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, the bill was a landmark effort to hamper illegal immigration into the state. The law requires that all non-native residents of the United States register with the government and carry their registration papers at all times.
When the law was signed in July of 2010, it initially sparked considerable controversy, especially outside of the conservative state of Arizona. Opponents called the bill “Gestapo-like.” However, many corporations were reluctant to overtly speak out against the bill because it mostly affects undocumented workers who deliberately lead lives outside of the public eye.
The Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA) was one corporation that decided to speak out against the bill. The chairman of the MLBPA was quick to issue a statement citing its opposition to S.B. 1070, asserting that it would “consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.”
The MLBPA statement went on to state, “These international players are very much a part of our national pastime and are important members of our Association. Their contributions to our sport have been invaluable, and their exploits have been witnessed, enjoyed, and applauded by millions of Americans.”
For a sport that has touted its reputation as equitable ever since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, this stance was not unexpected. However, the reasoning to speak out may have been fueled more by worries about their business than by altruism. With over a quarter of major leaguers identifying as Latin American and with them making up an even greater percentage of minor league players, the MLBPA could not have taken any other official position on the bill without angering a substantial part of its constituency.
But, whatever the reasons, the baseball community banded together in dissent of S.B. 1070. Fans called for a boycott of Arizona Diamondbacks games and demonstrated at the National’s home games in Washington. Players threatened to not take part in the All-Star Game if it remained in Arizona. When Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig chose not to move the game from Chase Field, fans promised to picket at the game.
However, these vows of action were made nearly a year before the game was actually slated to occur. By the time July 12, 2011 rolled around, the cries had mostly faded to a whisper. Despite promises to do otherwise, every All-Star player ultimately chose to participate in the game. The loss of fervor was also seen with fan responses–protesters acknowledged that while they had expected roughly 200 people to take part in protesting events, only about half that number actually showed up.
Many fans were critical of the players’ choice to play the game, but most were also unsurprised. Despite the league’s ideological narrative earlier in the year, players have historically chosen to refrain from making grand political gestures. The idea that “sports and politics don’t mix” was popular during other baseball controversies – most notably the steroid scandal of a few years ago – and it was no different with this case. Most sports analysts argued that, for the players, no action was the best action. For example, E.J. Montini, a columnist for the Arizona Republic, suggested, “S.B. 1070 isn’t their problem. It’s ours…No matter what a group of young millionaire athletes does.” In short, it was in the players’ best interests to threaten opposition to the law, but to not actually do anything about it.
However, as long as Arizona’s S.B. 1070 remains law, and as other states follow suit and pass their own anti-immigration laws (as Georgia and Alabama did this past summer), the MLB may have to take concrete actions.
S.B. 1070’s immediate potential effects are greater for fans than players. The Latin American players themselves may have felt discriminated against, but they are all legally documented immigrants. Because there are now so many Latin American players in the MLB, the Latin American population in the U.S. – many of whom are undocumented immigrants – makes up an increasingly growing percentage of baseball fans. In a sport that is already struggling to make enough revenue from ticket sales, the loss of any part of their fan base would greatly affect business.
There is also now a pervasive worry that the bill will dissuade Latin American players from coming to Arizona to play in either the Arizona Rookie League, or in the state’s collegiate athletic powerhouses: the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. If other traditionally conservative states, particularly those in the southern part of the United States, continue passing their own anti-immigration bills, this deterrent effect will likely spill over to schools in that region that serve as huge talent pools for professional clubs.
In essence, it is in the MLB’s best interest to alter their position of ‘all talk, no action’. If it does not, not only is it encouraging the xenophobia from which anti-immigration policies stem, but it will also suffer the loss of both its fans, and, eventually, its talent.