From Jackie Robinson to Cobb County: Has the Sports Industry Stopped Leading the Way?

Jackie Robinson shattered the “color barrier” existent in Major League Baseball for approximately a half of a century. Robinson’s, together with Branch Rickey’s, courageous actions exemplified how the sports world has continually been at the forefront of racial issues in this country, leading the way as to the ridiculousness of judging someone based upon the color of his or her skin. Sports have united the masses, while at the same time opening doors of opportunity. A sports fan, from casual to fanatic, can take pride in the fact that sports world has time and time again led the way regarding social injustices.

This is not to say that things are perfect in the sports industry but at least they are moving in the right direction. Take for example how quickly last spring new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver brought the hammer down on Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his recorded racially charged comments. As a sports fan, the swift and decisive actions of the new Commissioner fill you with hope and optimism. You trust that racial issues are being taken seriously by all of those involved in the sports industry, from the players, to the unions, to the leagues and team owners themselves. You find comfort in Commissioner Silver’s ruling and believe that the leagues and team owners take this issue seriously and will do whatever is necessary to make ensure that race is not a concern when it comes to their sports properties.

Or do they? Do they, the leagues and owners, take racial issues seriously? Are the owners and league leaders such as Adam Silver and previous Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig serious about racial injustices in the sports industry or are they just playing to the masses when the issue just cannot be ignored or when it suits them otherwise?

Take for example Major League Baseball’s franchise the Atlanta Braves. The Brave’s current home is Turner Field located in Atlanta, Georgia. Turner Field was built in 1996 and the Braves started playing at the facility in 1997. Turner Field is only 17 years old and by all accounts is in great shape structurally and can continue to house the Braves baseball team well into the future. Additionally, Turner Field was built for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games with taxpayer money. Yes the taxpayers, not Major League Baseball nor the owners of the Atlanta Braves, paid for the stadium.

But see, Turner Field, (and I mean the field itself through luxury suites, higher end concessions, and VIP seating) does not generate enough revenue for the Braves’ owners. This is not to say that they are losing money; they aren’t. In 2013, the owners of the Braves generated $253 million dollars in revenue and the team is currently valued at $730 million dollars. The owners just want to generate more revenue and therefore put more money in their pocket. But how can they do this; how can they increase their revenue? The answer is easy – move the team to another more modern, revenue-generating facility built at taxpayer expense.

 And this is exactly what the Braves have decided to do. In fact they have announced that for the 2017 season they will leave Turner Field for a new 42,000-seat, $672 million dollar stadium northwest of downtown Atlanta in Cobb County, Georgia. The owners of the Braves only agreed to such a move after the municipal leaders of Cobb County voted to approve $392 dollar million in public funds, in other words – taxpayer money, to construct a new stadium for the Braves.

Previous Commissioner Bud Selig backed the Braves’ move stating, “Major League Baseball fully supports their decision to move to a new ballpark in Atlanta for the 2017 season, and we look forward to their continued excellence representing their community, both on and off the field.”

Former Commissioner Selig agreeing that the Braves move out of Atlanta to Cobb County is the right thing is interesting in light of the fact that Major League Baseball, under the directive of Bud Selig himself, recently convened a 17-member diversity task force to study the issue of African-American players in the league. This was done since African-Americans only account for 8.5 percent of the league’s rosters, down from the high in 1986, when African- American players made up 19 percent. In fact recent statistics have indicated that the level of African-American baseball fans has fallen in the last 20 years as well.

“As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field,” Selig said, in a statement. “It’s not a quick fix situation,” said Wendy Lewis, senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball “It’s a long-term issue and one that is very important to the commissioner.”

Lewis further stated that the diversity panel is likely to recommend the expansion of diversity programs and, in addition, the league is sponsoring a diversity business summit where representatives for all 30 clubs will look into how to attract a more diverse population and increased supplier diversity. 

Therefore, the question becomes, how is Major League Baseball looking to attract a more diverse population when at the same time they are agreeing with the Braves move out of Atlanta to Cobb County? See, Atlanta, whose population is just shy of 500,000, is 54% African-American. In addition, Fulton County itself, whose population is approximately 1 million, is 44% African-American. This is in stark contrast to Cobb County, Georgia, whose population is approximately 700,000, wherein only 25% of which are African-American.

So is Major League Baseball sincere when they set up its diversity task force or are they ‘just playing to the masses” or “putting on a good show”? Where is the social responsibility for equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field, when condoning a franchise to take flight out of a predominately African-American area to a less diverse, suburban location – all at the expense of taxpayers? In addition, with the Cobb County stadium located outside of the downtown area, inner city baseball fans will have a difficult time finding their way to a baseball game since Cobb County is in no way conveniently located nor is there sufficient public transportation to get them there.

Doesn’t it seem apparent to the Major League Baseball hierarchy that this move would lead to a continued disenfranchising of African-Americans to America’s great pastime? Doesn’t it seem in contradiction to Major League Baseball’s position of providing equal opportunities to all, both on and off the field? Is such a move in line with what Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey stood for when they, together, courageously broke down Major League Baseball’s color barrier over sixty years ago?

Major League Baseball has chosen to breach its own self-proclaimed responsibility to provide equal opportunities at a time in our country when things like Ferguson are occurring; where an unarmed 18 year old black male is gun-downed by a white police officer and as a result, more than just a township is divided along racial lines. At a time when racial disparities in our criminal justice system are so one-sided that it is hard for minorities, especially African-Americans, not to feel that they are being targeted. Based upon these injustices that are felt by a large segment of our country’s population, it is imperative that the sports world step up again, to take the lead – ala Jackie Robinson. One must understand that Ferguson is no longer the name of a town in Missouri – it is an eye opener that provides us with a stern lesson on the value of public trust, a public trust that the sports industry needs to again take seriously to ensure that African-Americans and other minorities are not disenfranchised.

Robert J. Romano, Esq.

September 2, 2014