Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Soulless Emporiums of Shameless Commerce”: Baseball and Black Radicalism in the Twenty-First Century

A paper I wrote for my Black Leftist Radicalism course. Shared because combining baseball and history is always delightful!

The connection between leftist politics, the Black freedom struggle, and professional baseball has historically centered on the campaign to integrate baseball, which culminated in Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Black and white anti-racist left maintained an interest in baseball’s potential to highlight America’s economic, cultural, and racial divides after integration. Yet their critiques gained new salience in the modern era of neoliberal economics and colorblind social policies. How and why has professional baseball served as a topic of political discussion and advocacy for Black leftists and white anti-racist socialists in the twenty-first century? Authors and activists on the anti-racist left have approached contemporary baseball through two thematic lenses: analyzing race and cultural representation in the game, or by using baseball’s financial structure as an example of racist and capitalist practices in America. The majority of these articles bemoan the relative decline of African American players in the game since the 1980s and connect that decline to the lost promise of integrationism. These articles contain leftist critiques of baseball’s capitalist structure and also wrestle with concerns about racial solidarity with latino players. The other primary theme in Black leftist coverage of baseball is the use of the economic structure of baseball ownership and management as an example of the corruption inherent in modern capitalism. Public-private stadium ventures provide understandable stand-ins for the complex machinations of neoliberal economics made all the more visible by the public bank bailouts necessitated by the 2008 financial crisis. At times the economic machinations involved in baseball and other professional sports provide direct examples of government disinvestment in Black urban spaces. The common thread that links all of these commentaries, protests, and think-pieces, aside from baseball, is their intersectional analysis of race and capitalism.

In what has become a biennial ritual, Jackie Robinson Day in mid-April and the World Series in October are now always accompanied by a profusion of articles bemoaning the declining percentage of African American players in the game. Though the statistics they cite vary, the trend is inarguable: African American participation in baseball has declined dramatically since its peak in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) writers Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt conducted the most thorough study of the phenomenon of declining African American participation in baseball in 2013. The study offered the most accurate assessment of the ethnic makeup of the game by disaggregating African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, who had often been grouped together as “Black” in prior studies. Armour and Levitt determined that in 2012 African Americans comprised 7.2% of all players, a dramatic decline from the peak of 18.7% in 1981, while Latino players increased from 11.1% to 26.9% over the same period. The SABR writers cautioned that they did not know the cause of these changes, but mainstream media outlets quickly offered speculative suggestions about the economic and cultural causes of the demographic shifts.

Though subsequent academic studies concluded that “the larger impediment” to African American participation in baseball “is cost,” many media reports placed the blame for the declining African American presence in the game on African American culture. In rhetoric that contains painfully familiar echoes of the discourse on Black poverty and criminality, such articles typically gesture towards the pernicious effects of what ESPN writer Tim Keown describes as “athletic red-lining” in youth baseball before pivoting to damaging cultural critiques. Tyler Kepner’s April 2014 New York Times article offered an egregious example of the genre. Kepner describes the complex economic disincentives that confronted African American pitcher C.C. Sabathia in his struggle to afford youth baseball, but ends with Sabathia’s musings that “there’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play.” Quotes from prominent African American players like Sabathia serve to legitimize the cultural critique of African American family life as the cause of the decline. African American comedian Chris Rock offered the same cultural criticism in his 2015 HBO special on baseball, declaring that “it’s not the money, you can’t tell me Black kids can’t afford baseball when everybody’s buying Jordans for $300.” Similar statements, such as Jesse Jackson Sr.’s remark that he was relieved to hear footsteps on the street and “see somebody white,” legitimized the rhetoric of law and order politics in the 1990s.

Black leftist commentators and news sites covered the decline of African Americans in baseball extensively and from a very different perspective. Color Lines, American Renaissance, Solidarity, and the Equal Justice Society each reported on the phenomenon. The Pan-African News Wire alone ran nine articles between 2007 and 2015. Each article employed a different set of statistics but offered arguments that differed fundamentally from the cultural critiques of the mainstream media and more conservative Black commentators. These leftist organizations emphasized the structural inequalities of racism and capitalism in American society as the cause for decline in African American participation in baseball. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, summarized this structural critique by saying “it’s not a question of action. It’s a question of access.”

The Pan-African News Wire’s 2012 installment typifies Black leftist coverage of the phenomenon. The article places the bulk of the blame for the decline of African Americans from a peak of 27% in 1975 to only 8% that April on the “dearth of collegiate scholarships, increasing cost of funding teams in inner cities and, some say, a lack of opportunities in major league front offices.” The leftist critique in this and several other articles on leftist sites focuses on the lack of equality of opportunity for African Americans to make their way into Major League Baseball. The rising cost of youth baseball and lack of collegiate scholarships are presented as structural barriers but the authors stop short of asserting that they were constructed with an explicitly racist intent. Color Lines offered a more aggressive and wide-ranging anti-capitalist critique in an interview with University of California Sociology Professor Harry Edwards in April 2000. In the midst of a lengthy discussion of the decline of African American athletics nationally, Dr. Edwards argued that the drop-off in participation numbers was attributable to punitive social policies. Dr. Edwards said that “through institutional erosion, through the degradation of the black athletic pool, through disqualification, judicial procedures and deaths” America had begun “disqualifying, jailing, burying, and leaving behind” its African American athletes. Though Dr. Edwards’ critique delved more deeply into institutional factors than did other commentators, his interview in Color Lines established the basis of the Black leftist interpretation of the drop-off in African American participation in baseball by locating the reasons for the decline “not inside sport, but the reasons in society, which are ultimately reflective in sport.”

The Black left’s critique of the racist and exploitatively capitalist processes that they perceived as the cause of baseball’s ethnic transformation gained widespread attention as a result of controversial comments by two African American star players. In the twilight of their All-star careers, Gary Sheffield and Torii Hunter sparked angry reactions from both the mainstream and portions of the Black and Latino/a press by speaking openly and provocatively about the demographic shifts in the modern game. Hunter garnered attention in 2010 for remarking that “people see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African American.” Hunter continued to say that the dark-skinned Latino players from the Caribbean were “not us. They’re impostors." Yet the primary focus of Hunter’s comments was on the racially-based economic exploitation that the demographic shifts represented. Hunter believed that the reason Latinos were recruited by teams instead of African Americans was “because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?” Sheffield made the same point with less dramatic language, declaring that the demographic shifts in the game were “[about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do–being able to control them. Where I’m from, you can’t control us.” However, his comment that African Americans were more capable than Latinos of demanding respect in labor disputes because of their long history interacting with American racist capitalism was stripped of its condemnation of exploitation in mainstream reports. As with Hunter’s remarks, Sheffield’s critique of the inherent power dynamic of poor Latino immigrants reliant on white-owned baseball corporations for their employment and resident status was rendered in the mainstream media as a Black-Brown conflict.

Black leftist organizations used Sheffield and Hunter’s controversial comments to move the discussion of ethnic representation in baseball further away from the realm of sports and integrate it into a broader debate over race, capitalism, and immigration. Color Lines questioned whether his comments were “frank or racist” but declined to pass judgment one way or another. The Equal Justice Society, an Oakland, CA-based non-profit dedicated to “transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts,” used Sheffield’s comments to provide insight into “the context of changing racial demographics and global economic conditions and what it means for the fight for social justice.” The 2007 article contrasted the tension between Latino and African American baseball players with the way that “discrimination and exploitation” function in American capitalism to break down solidarity between ethnic groups. Instead of decrying Sheffield’s racially charged remarks, the article compared his description of the racial power dynamics in baseball with recent conservative Supreme Court rulings that had constrained the ability of laborers to seek legal redress against exploitative practices.

Sports, and baseball in particular, also serve as useful “microcosms of society” through which Black leftists seek to advance their anti-capitalist and anti-racist critiques more broadly. The Pan-African News Wire used this approach to highlight racially-based income inequality by noting that “the majority of the players are black; however the overwhelmingly majority of the fans that can afford tickets are white.” However, the most powerful criticisms of the economic structure of baseball and other professional sports that Black leftists offered have focused on the public funding of private sports stadiums. The poor return on investment that these public-private ventures provide has been widely acknowledged since the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit detailed the financial shenanigans involved in such projects. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 federal budget attempted to tackle the issue by barring “the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance professional sports facilities,” but the possibility of anti-democratic collusion in public-private deals has made them increasingly difficult to stop. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the corrupting influence that stadium deals can have on municipal politics arose in 2014 in Cobb County, Georgia. County Commission Chairman Tim Lee wooed the Atlanta Braves out of their barely twenty-year-old stadium in the Black-majority downtown and into the predominantly white northern suburbs by offering nearly $400 million in public funds. It then emerged that Chairman Lee had secretly hired a lawyer to negotiate the stadium deal with the Braves without informing his fellow commissioners, in direct violation of the county code of ethics. However, in a twist that would be considered implausible in a Danielle Steele novel, Commissioner Lee successfully fended off the ethics charges in part by arguing that the ethics code’s usage of the word “should” in the statement that government officials “by their conduct should avoid the appearance of impropriety,” meant that the code was “not a mandatory standard of conduct, but rather an advisory statement.”

The critiques offered by Black leftist organizations go far beyond the budgetary criticism of mainstream commentators. Black leftists placed the public financing of sports stadiums into the context of the decades-long destruction of inner cities “committed under the guise of beneficial economic development” but without the consent of the community. The Black Agenda Report, which offers “news, information and analysis from the black left,” twice compared the effect of publicly funded stadiums to the devastation of Black New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina. Glen Ford, Executive Editor of the Black Agenda Report, remarked that “Katrina left no doubt” that the goal of the “financial class… is to drastically reduce the Black populations of the cities.” Citing a plan to build a $60 million stadium in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, Ford claimed that the hurricane and the stadium were part of the same scheme that was “ultimately intended to bring in whites and displace Blacks and browns” from the cities. Ford’s 2014 comments built on a 2007 article by Margaret Kimberley in the same publication. The article denounced how “the poor and working class who ask for help are stigmatized as parasites, [while] the high and mighty get the red carpet treatment when they stick their hands in the public treasury.” Kimberley explicitly implicated “Black elected officials” in her criticism of public stadium funding, arguing that they were accomplishing for New York “what hurricane Katrina did for New Orleans.”

Black leftists also emphasized, as the mainstream media often failed to, how municipal budgets were a zero-sum game. Funds going to sports stadiums could not be spent on education, infrastructure, or community programs that would disproportionately benefit poor urban minorities. Varda Burstyn, author of the 1999 book The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport, explained to the “Socialist, Feminist, Anti-Racist Organization” Solidarity that, in Cleveland: “$450 million came out of the education budget, but the city found $520 million [that] went into the new stadium for the Cleveland Browns.” Burstyn linked professional sports to the decline of the city and the growth of the punitive state by explaining how “hundreds of billions of dollars of public money have been taken away from health, education and welfare -- the “soft” departments of the state” and funneled instead into either police departments or sports stadiums. In Cincinnati, sales taxes funded $1 billion in stadium construction while “thousands of Cincinnati children [went] to school without pencils and paper.” In Burstyn’s revealing phrase, the siphoning off of public funds into private sporting arenas amounted to providing “circuses without the bread.” Similarly, Ryan Reilly, writing for the Socialist Alternative in 2014, bemoaned the "public money being spent on privately owned stadiums instead of programs to help working people, the poor, and youth.” Reilly considered the use of public funds for stadium construction an indictment of the inherent corruption of capitalism on par with the public bailouts that were “given to the banks that crashed the economy.”

Though Black leftist commentators mainly sought to expose the pernicious effects of public-private stadium projects, they did at times propose solutions. Reilly advocated for “‘municipalization’ where the resources and profits of the teams would be used to the benefit of the people in the cities and areas in which they are based.” James Generic of Solidarity somewhat optimistically saw a chance for sports to provide an avenue for the realization of his organization’s namesake. He argued that the shared “history of betrayal by a conservative, inactive social elite” that promoted such projects would be a way for leftists to connect with sports-loving but non-radical white workers. The most concrete and powerful opposition to the application of neoliberal economics to sports stadium construction took place in Detroit in the 1990s. Mike Betzold, a radical journalist locked-out of the Detroit Free Press explained in Solidarity how crucial the old Tiger Stadium was to the troubled industrial city. Though Betzold confessed his attachment to the park was largely sentimental, he phrased his opposition to the “malicious destruction of public property accomplished through extortion and corporate welfare” as an explicitly anti-capitalist critique. Though Betzold and a group of local activists delayed the stadium plan for years, and limited the public funds involved, they were unable to save the old ballpark which had served as “a center of urban life even after much of the life had gone out of the city.” The destruction of sites of urban community solidarity, cultural “common ground,” and their replacement by luxury stadiums that Betzold catchily characterized as “soulless emporiums of shameless commerce” was viewed by the anti-racist left as merely an extension of “business as usual in modern America.”

Because of its association with one of the first victories of the Black freedom struggle and with some of the worst excesses of capitalism, baseball remains a potent metaphor for Black leftists to engage with. The demographic shifts in the game since the 1980s have provided writers and activists with the opportunity to discuss the failures of colorblind social policies, immigration and labor law, and issues of solidarity with the growing Latino/a community. Black leftists have, and will continue, to use the funneling of public money towards private stadiums and away from city coffers to indict the discriminative nature of modern American capitalism. Examples of how these public-private partnerships undermine public safety and urban communities have proliferated almost too rapidly to catalog. In only the most recent instance, Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee, of ethics code fame, announced on June 6, 2016 that the county had been forced to redirect more than $20 million in funds that had been intended to acquire and build new public parks to instead pay for bonds on the new Atlanta Braves stadium. The county will now have to raise taxes on its constituents to fund the public parks.