In the wake of the passage of Arizona's anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070, Major League Baseball has been under an increasingly hot spotlight. Boycotts and protests have been called against MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks.
Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been asked by local activists to stop traveling to Arizona for Spring training. Players like San Diego Padres star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and managers like Chicago White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen have said they will boycott the 2011 Major League All Star Game if it is played in Phoenix as planned.
The Major League Players Association and Civil Rights leaders like Jesse Jackson have demanded that baseball commissioner Bud Selig take some sort of proactive step in political opposition to a law that many say codifies racial profiling of Latinos. (Mexican President Ivan Calderon has even issued a travel warning to Mexican citizens wanting to visit the "Grant Canyon state").
Yet a question underlies this remarkable, and remarkably unexpected, flurry of activity: why baseball? Why aren't the NBA's Phoenix Suns, currently amidst a playoff run, being pressured to make any kind of a statement? Why haven't their international players like Canadian Steve Nash or "the Brazilian Blur" Leandro Barbosa been asked for their opinions?
Why aren't the Arizona Cardinals football team under a similar microscope? What about NCAA football, which is holding its national championship game in January 2011 at Arizona's Fiesta Bowl? Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent was on ESPN radio Tuesday morning and said that the pressure Bud Selig is feeling, is a kind of complement. "Baseball is seen as a moral force," he said.
Vincent also referenced baseball's history as a stalking horse for integration, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947 years before the names of Dr.Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were on America's lips. There is certainly a measure of truth to this. We expect baseball to reflect the best angels of our nature, the most inclusive side of this country, and an ideal of both fair play and community cohesion. We want baseball to lead us, to stand for something, to be that "moral force" in the often fetid swamp that is modern professional sports.
There is only one problem with this narrative. It doesn't come close to getting at the truth. Yes baseball was a stalking horse for integration with the advent of Jackie Robinson but it was also a stalking horse for Jim Crow segregation when players led by future Hall of Famer Cap Anson organized to kick African Americans out of the sport in 1887. In other words, baseball has reflected not just the best but the worst political traditions of this country.
To understand why baseball is under the microscope, the answer is found not in the idealized, angelic world of what we want baseball to be. It's in the highly exploitative foundation that has built the sport into a modern multi-billion dollar force. Baseball has an obligation to respond to Arizona's anti-immigrant actions because it has for a generation invested billions of dollars in developing talent on the cheap in Latin America, where 27.7% of players were born.
Most are from the Dominican Republic, nicknamed by baseball executives "the Republic of Baseball" where many prospects play without shoes, using cut-out milk cartons for gloves, rolled-up cloth for balls, and sticks for bats. They dream of being signed by the league's baseball academies, places where many Dominican children first encounter three meals a day or an indoor toilet. They can be signed at 15 for as little as $2,000 and more than 93% never even make it to the U.S. MINOR leagues.
Like so much industry in the U.S., baseball has profited mightily from their investment in immigrant labor. Now Bud Selig has to decide whether he will allow nearly 30% of his players to effectively be criminalized when they go to Arizona for Spring training or play an away game against the Diamondbacks. This is a question in miniature that much of big business in the United States now must face. It is entirely unacceptable for any industry to employ and exploit immigrant labor and then turn a blind eye when their workers are scapegoated and attacked for the crime of being immigrants.
Many are looking now to see how Bud Selig and baseball will lead the way and whether it will be with courage or cowardice. If history is any guide with regard to Mr. Selig, we already know the answer. That's why it's so important to project our voices loudly and clearly to Bud Selig, Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, and our own home teams: remove the 2011 All Star Game from Phoenix and take a stand for immigrant rights. Bud Selig: you can either stand in the tradition of Jackie Robinson or Cap Anson. The choice is yours.
First run at thenation.com
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love" (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]