It’s inevitable when you talk about the intersection of sports and politics online: the appearance, in email or Twitter reply, of the aggrieved fan who wants only to consume the former and hear nothing of the latter. “Stick to sports,” is the common refrain and it gets deployed with great frequency in particular when athletes choose to speak up about the state of the nation. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, he was vilified. When LeBron James opines on racism in America, he’s told to “shut up and dribble.” When players try to point out inequalities great or small, or advocate for social justice, or criticize the government for how it marginalizes the poor and the downtrodden, most fans don’t want to hear it.
But while those men and women are told to pipe down, leagues and owners are pumping money directly into the political world. Our latest example came over Thanksgiving weekend, when it was revealed that a political action committee for Major League Baseball had contributed $5,000 to the re-election campaign for Mississippi senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, per an FEC filing dated Nov. 23. The news comes three weeks after Hyde-Smith was caught on video saying that she’d happily be in the front row of a public hanging—a galling, racist comment given her state’s brutal history of lynchings of African Americans during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
On Sunday, MLB announced that it would be asking for its money back, though its explanation of why its PAC cut a check for Hyde-Smith in the first place was opaque. Per ESPN’s Buster Olney, a league spokesperson said, “The contribution was made in connection with an event that MLB lobbyists were asked to attend.” Fancred’s Jon Heyman, meanwhile, tweeted, “MLB adds that its contribution came before it was aware of Cindy Hyde-Smith’s reprehensible comments.”
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An MLB source told me that the donation was part of a fundraising event, not given directly to Hyde-Smith’s campaign, and that the money was not sent on Nov. 23 but some time before. The source added that MLB’s lobbyists were unaware of Hyde-Smith’s comments at the time the contribution was made, and that when the league learned that money had been given to her, it asked for the donation to be returned.
The idea that the contribution was made as part of some larger lobbyist event, though, raises plenty of bigger questions about the event itself, who was in attendance, and why MLB was there. Even if Hyde-Smith received the money before she joked about hangings, why didn’t MLB rescind its donation between then and now, as several other corporations did?
The answer is simple: Hyde-Smith’s particular views didn’t matter to MLB’s PAC, because she’s just one of many beneficiaries of the league’s lobbying largesse, not a specific target. Per OpenSecrets.org, the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball PAC donated $245,500 to dozens of federal candidates in the 2018 election cycle, spreading money out to both sides of the aisle. That list includes Hyde-Smith, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Min.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), to name a few. MLB isn’t in the business of playing favorites or politics—just making sure that the league stays on the good side of those currently in Congress.
The league has gotten its money’s worth, too. Enriching the coffers of elected officials helps MLB keep its antitrust exemption, saving it from federal commerce laws, and aided in the passage of the Saving America’s Pastime Act. That disingenuously titled bit of work, tacked onto the most recent spending bill, exempts minor league players from federal labor law, allowing teams to pay them below-poverty wages. That doesn’t strike me as a league sticking to sports.
The same is true of the owners within baseball. Like MLB, Giants co-owner Charles B. Johnson also recently sent money Hyde-Smith’s way—$2,700, along with $2,700 from his wife, Ann, a month after he gave $1,000 to a Super PAC called “Black Americans for the President’s Agenda,” which was responsible for a racist radio ad deployed during Arkansas’ midterm congressional elections. The rest of the league’s owners are also actively involved in campaign fundraising, donating thousands to the candidates of their choice—Democrats and Republicans—during every election cycle. With their money, they actively inject themselves into politics, changing the course of the country.
That feels more damaging than ever in the case of people like Hyde-Smith, who not only made those hanging comments but also “joked” on the campaign trail about how it would be great to make it harder for liberals to vote, posted a picture of herself to Facebook in a Confederate soldier’s hat in 2014 with the caption, “Mississippi history at its best,” and praised a Confederate soldier in a 2007 state senate resolution as someone who “defend[ed] his homeland.” This kind of retrograde and racist behavior goes completely against the diversity initiatives that MLB has trumpeted over the last few years, and yet the league’s PAC nevertheless gave Hyde-Smith financial support. The message is that her politics don’t matter as much as her unerring support—as craven and cynical a stance as can be taken in this day and age, and one that makes it feel like MLB’s previous progressive stances are nothing more than lip service.
But it pays for MLB to be in business with politicians like Hyde-Smith, and in return, its owners get plenty back. President Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was a boon for millionaires and billionaires alike, and a nice payback for those in MLB and other leagues who donated either to his campaign or to those Republican representatives and senators who voted for it. It benefits leagues and owners too much for them to stay out of politics, and if the cost is a weekend’s worth of bad optics and clumsy press releases, so be it.
For all the uproar over the donation, MLB’s money likely wouldn’t have made a difference one way or the other to Hyde-Smith. She’s heavily favored in Tuesday’s special runoff election against Democratic challenger Mike Espy, and once she’s safely back in office, MLB and the owners can likely count on her votes in the future. The PR stain will remain on the league for some time, but in the end, they get what they want. They don’t have to stick to sports—and they never will.