Republicans are Running Out of Sports to Watch

by | Apr 12, 2021 | Politics, Sports

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines when he reneged on throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener. Citing the MLB’s decision to move its summer All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to Georgia’s new voter law, the Republican went a step further by announcing a personal boycott of baseball. “It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” he wrote in an open letter to Rangers president Mike Leibman, adding that the state wouldn’t seek to host or participate in future events held by the league. 

Like many of Abbott’s public statements, these declarations amount to little more than posturing in the name of peddling falsehoods. But when you step back and view them within the larger national narrative, they align with the widespread culture war that GOP lawmakers continue to wage in hopes of distracting voters from their attacks on democracy. Even more, they speak to the fact that, for all their talk of “cancel culture,” it’s clear that conservatives are the standard-bearers of the phenomenon they claim to so vehemently oppose.

What’s most fascinating about the governor’s decision, though, is that it continues Republicans’ targeting of professional sports. In less than a year, the GOP has lashed out against almost every major U.S. sport, starting with the NBA last summer. After a player-led campaign turned the league’s Orlando bubble into the biggest political platform in the history of American athletics, conservatives like insurrectionist man of the people Josh Hawley cried foul—imploring NBA commissioner Adam Silver to include “Back the Blue” in its messaging around social justice. ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski’s response to the senator’s request put it best: “F*ck you.” 

In the months since, the GOP has deployed similar tactics against the WNBA (including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who owned the Atlanta Dream before the team’s players helped push her out of the franchise) and the NFL over similar player protests. They even went after NASCAR after it banned the Confederate flag from its racetracks last July. Let me reiterate: Republicans called for their voters to boycott NASCAR

Despite these spirited attempts, there’s little evidence that such efforts have had any tangible impact or staying power. Sure, data from Sports Insider shows that Southern states like Florida and Mississippi, places where football is a way of life, were the two biggest online hotbeds for the anti-NFL movement. But you don’t have to be a wonk to know that boycotting sports—and sparring with superstar athletes who, thanks to social media, have more power and popularity than ever before—is a fool’s errand. 

Republicans aren’t just losing the culture battle here, either. By pandering to their base and issuing threats to America’s most popular pastimes, they’re proving that Trumpism is actively bad for business. Indeed, by vacating the MLB All-Star Game, Georgia is primed to miss out on more than $100 million in expected tourist revenue. Though many Democrats have applauded baseball’s decision to uproot the Midsummer Classic, it’s important to note that advocates like Stacey Abrams lobbied against the move because it will hurt working class people far more than the Peach State elite. If Abbott remains firm in his threat to forgo similar events in the future, that same opportunity cost should be expected in Texas, too. 

Setting aside the political implications for a moment, Republicans have a real opportunity here: Thanks to their exodus from mainstream athletics, the door is now open for the GOP to become the party of the alt-right and alt-sports. Just imagine Mitch McConnell adding revenue from Vince McMahon’s short-lived XFL to his laundry list of corporate contributions. Or Ted Cruz unleashing that beaver tail hairdo onto America’s frisbee golf courses. Or Don Jr. posting practice runs for his biathlon training. (Okay, that one’s actually pretty realistic. The man loves guns and powder of all kinds.) The possibilities are endless.

Looking ahead, there’s nothing that suggests this issue’s going to die down anytime soon. In fact, with college players becoming more and more outspoken, it appears increasingly likely that conservatives’ next frontier lies within the collegiate ranks. An ongoing feud between University of Texas donors and athletes protesting the school song’s racist roots is just one example of what could soon be an avalanche of disputes surrounding a system grounded in old white benefactors laying claim to unpaid (and oftentimes Black) players. And if that fails, GOP lawmakers are already laying the groundwork to persecute young trans athletes across a myriad of states, including Texas

From the gridiron to the pitcher’s mound to the hardcourt, Republicans have proven they’re willing to die on any hill, anytime, anywhere. But eventually, they’re going to realize they’ve backed themselves into a corner with no clear way out. Because at a certain point, there’s only so many times you can take your ball and go home before you run out of sports to boycott. 

Photo: Michael Barera / Wikimedia Commons

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Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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