Baseball purists still refer to their sport as our ''national pastime,'' a term that predates the grainy, black-and-white clips that have immortalized Babe Ruth. The game's critics counter that Major League Baseball is simply past its time and, regardless of sentimental slogans, the NFL is our true ''national passion'' where sports are concerned. But when it comes to standing up on a contentious social issue, there's no disputing that the NFL is king—evidenced by its stand to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
A referendum to make MLK Day a paid state holiday was on the ballot in 1990 in Arizona, which was among the nation's last holdouts. The 1993 Super Bowl was scheduled to be held in Tempe, Ariz., but the NFL declared the game would be moved if the referendum failed. When voters rejected the holiday, the NFL moved the Super Bowl to Pasadena, Calif., and a host of other industries followed suit by boycotting, costing Arizona an estimated $340 million loss in tourism business between 1991 and 1992. And when the referendum re-appeared on Arizona's 1992 ballot—surprise, surprise—the measure passed by a 61-percent-to-39-percent margin.
But what has the MLB done with its opportunity to make statement in Arizona, its chance to take a principled stand against the state's new immigration law? With the 2011 All-Star Game scheduled to be held in Phoenix, MLB commissioner Bud Selig had a pitch he should have clobbered for an easy home run. Instead, he didn't even take the bat off his shoulder.
Even worse, when asked why he let such a juicy pitch go by, his response suggested that his eyes were closed. Or that his head was stuck where the sun doesn't shine.
''Apparently, all the people around and in minority communities think we're doing OK,'' Selig told reporters at a recent news conference, inexplicably using baseball's record on minority hiring as a defense for keeping the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix. ''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.''
He pointed out that baseball's hiring practices received an A for race and a B for gender in last month's annual report from noted sports sociologist Richard Lapchick. Selig also mentioned a lifetime achievement award he received in March from the Jackie Robinson Foundation. ''We're a social institution,'' he said. ''We have done everything we should do … Privilege to do it. Don't want any pats on the back, and we'll continue to do it.''
Wow. He might as well have said: ''Look, we have a lot of Hispanic employees; so whatever happens to other Hispanics isn't our concern.''
''The commissioner is clearly out of touch with the 'minority communities' he says MLB is so in tune with,'' Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente, told USA Today. Presente is a national Latino-focused online group which has been active along with Move The Game and Move On in organizing opposition to the new Arizona law. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) the Senate's sole Latino, has joined Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) in calling for a change of venue. Menendez sent the players' union a letter, asking that players consider boycotting the game unless the law is repealed or the game is moved to another city. ''The Arizona law is offensive to Hispanics and all Americans because it codifies racial profiling into law by requiring police to question anyone who appears to be in the country illegally,'' Menendez wrote.
Baseball might get off the hook if the new law appears as a referendum in November and voters do the right thing. (Although that seems unlikely right now, considering polls show 60 percent of Americans nationwide favor the crackdown.) And there's also a chance that the law could be struck down as unconstitutional, with at least two cities in Arizona embarking on court challenges. But neither occurrence would change the fact that Selig was spineless when a strong backbone was necessary.
Arizona tourism officials say the city faces lost business worth about $90 million over the next five years. As of April 30, the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association had identified 19 conventions canceled (including my beloved Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity), worth an estimated 15,000 room nights, or $6 million. But none of those conventions have the Q-rating of baseball's All-Star Game. If nothing else, Selig should have left the threat of a pullout in place and ignored the principal-over-principle folks: The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 10 other groups who wrote to Selig and asked him to keep the All-Star Game in Phoenix.
Here's hoping that the players' union follows the example the NFL set 20 years ago, and shows Selig what socially responsible sports leadership looks like.
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.