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Republicans Have Ruined Sports for Republicans

The favorability of the MLB, NBA, and NFL has sharply dropped on the right, thanks to culture warriors like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the right found the latest battle in the culture wars: America’s pastime. When Major League Baseball moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver after Georgia passed a wave of voter suppression measures, the outcry was sharp.

“Baseball was supposed to be America’s pastime: happy, unifying, fundamentally nonpolitical,” Tucker Carlson brayed. “President [Biden] is willing to destroy even something as wholesome as the country’s traditional game purely to increase [his] power.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott refused to throw out the first pitch of the Texas Rangers’ first home game of the season. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel Romney tweeted what passes for a joke on the right: “Guess what I am doing today? Not watching baseball!!!!”

And then there was Donald Trump. “Well look I’m just not very interested in baseball for the last number of years,” Trump told Newsmax. “You know, you look, it’s—you want to find a game, it’s on, it’s on every channel, and yet you can’t find anything. It’s the weirdest thing. Used to be a nice, easy thing to follow. And you know what I mean by that. It was on one network, and it was nice and good and beautiful. Today, you don’t even know what the hell you’re watching. So I would say boycott baseball, why not? I think what they did was a terrible thing.”

This trademark word salad sums up the mood on the right. Trump’s biggest grievance appears to be that it’s harder to find a baseball game than it used to be—presumably because there are more channels than there used to be. Boycott baseball? It’s hard to find a game on anyway, so why not? MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Georgia is fueling right-wing media for the moment, and that’s all that really matters.

Attacking sports leagues for being too woke, too liberal, or too tied to the Democratic Party has become one of the most important media narratives on the right. Support for the NFL, NBA, and MLB has cratered in response to cynical campaigns led by conservative media outlets and politicians. Pseudo-scandals about “politics” being injected into sports, which often involve protests of racial injustice, have caused Republicans to flee from sports in droves. It’s the latest example of the right’s outrage machine ruining large swaths of American culture for its own supporters.

And it worked. “In mid-March, MLB’s net favorability rating among Republicans was 47 percent, the highest of the four major U.S. sports leagues,” Axios’s Kendell Baker reported last week. “Since then, it has plummeted to 12 percent, dropping the league below the NFL and NHL, according to new data from Morning Consult.” The National Hockey League currently boasts the highest net favorability of the major sports leagues. Democrats have a much higher net favorability for all four big leagues, preferring the NBA by 48 points, the MLB by 29 points, and the NFL by 23 points.

Race is a big factor in all this. The conservative turn against the NFL came after players, most notably Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. The NBA, which was never as popular among conservatives, was similarly snubbed, due to player activism following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police last year. The protest against the MLB revolves around voting laws that disproportionately target minority voters.

The MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game was ironically made to minimize a potential political distraction. Rather than face criticism from players who might opt out of the game in protest, as well as from corporate sponsors that didn’t want to be seen as supporting voter suppression, baseball moved the game out of Georgia altogether. This was a business decision above all else, intended to skirt a scandal that was threatening to swallow the start of the 2021 season.

Despite the claims of Carlson and others, these leagues have never been nonpolitical. Like much of American culture, they have possessed a distinct conservative bent for decades. The NFL heavily features American military symbolism. Despite the outrage over Kaepernick’s affront to the supposed tradition of the national anthem, players had only been required to be on the field for its playing since 2009, when the Department of Defense paid the league millions of dollars. Baseball is particularly conservative, with an aging fanbase that venerates tradition.

The owners of sports leagues donate far more to Republicans than to Democrats, moreover. “Over the past three election cycles, MLB owners donated roughly $20.4 million to campaigns and super PACs. $15.2 million (74.5 percent) went to Republicans, while $5.2 million (25.5 percent) went to Democrats,” wrote Axios’s Baker.

But the relationship between culture and politics has changed, and corporations and sports leagues have drifted leftward, along with other institutions. This dynamic has been compounded by the right’s increasing addiction to culture-war issues. Cynical politicians and pundits are laying a grand, bogus narrative about America’s once proud, apolitical institutions being taken over by hordes of rich, ungrateful, woke, and nonwhite vandals who only care about tearing down what once made America great.

It is really the right, in this instance, that has insisted on pushing politics into professional sports. In its universe, keeping politics out of sports means pretending that a racist voting law doesn’t exist; it means insisting that there is no world outside the arena, which has never been true and is itself a political position.

In its rage, the right has gone scorched earth, attacking any institution that dares acknowledge a broader reality. It hasn’t accomplished anything, other than ruining a source of entertainment and community for many Republicans.