Look Who Came to MLB’s Thanksgiving Dinner: Political Donations!

This Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball found itself stuck in the middle of a typically uncomfortable holiday tradition: A cringe-worthy political debate. And MLB blinked by requesting the return of its $5,000 political donation given only three weeks ago to the re-election campaign of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS).

An MLB statement tried mitigating the PR kerfuffle by explaining the donation was only made by its lobbyists who attend political fund-raisers on its behalf. The suggestion apparently was that the donation was made blindly without a study of Sen. Hyde-Smith, her platform, or recent nationally covered comments. You know, nothing to see here. Just harmless “business as usual” influence-buying.

I grant “influence-buying” may seem a loaded term. Others may prefer the term “political donation” or “kindly corporate civic engagement.” But facts are the only reasons anyone gives to a politician are either because they deeply believe in that candidacy or to buy influential access. MLB would like for us to believe the former is not true – which I can believe – which leaves influence/access-buying (or some semantic variation) as the lone motivation.

But to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld and friends, “not that there’s anything illegal about that.” At least as of 2010. That was when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Citizen United v. FEC and made political donations from corporate entities like MLB legal a form of protected free speech. And now MLB hopes many believe they put little thought into their $5,000 worth of free speech in support of Hyde-Smith. Thank you, Supreme Court.

Of course, one spin on the donation story is MLB was at least shamed into requesting the refund. (Season ticket holders of many teams might envy that move once they see their team’s opening day lineup.) But for those cheering this, realize any sense of shame does not extend to MLB’s spending $3.7 million over the last three years to “persuade” Washington to pass the benevolent-sounding “Save America’s Pastime Act.” Thanks to that lobbying, a $10 billion-a-year industry earlier this year was exempted from paying its minor league ballplayers at least a minimum wage.

Further, we have no word if this newly “shamed” MLB will press any of its owners or top executives who also may have donated to Hyde-Smith to request similar refunds. So far, we know San Francisco Giants’ principal owner Charles B. Johnson and his wife each gave $2,700 to Hyde-Smith’s campaign. Johnson also donated to a political action committee (PAC) that was behind racist campaign robocalls this year in Arkansas.

News of these donations have even started a nascent boycott among Giants Nation. It is too early to know how large it grows, but it does include at least Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.

The cognitive dissonance this kind of news brings to sports fans is nothing new. Unfortunately, such occurrences have only increased in recent years as recognition has grown for everything from brain injuries to domestic abuse to excessive police force and bled into sports. Thus we fans probably should get used to this messy intersection of sports and politics. For as the donations by the Giants owner show, where millionaires and billionaires abound, uncomfortable political optics are never far away.

To bring it closer to home, consider the Chicago Cubs ownership family. The Ricketts are among the most active political donors in the nation. Family patriarch Joe Ricketts and his wife alone currently rank as the 28th most generous political donors in the nation and have given more than $40 million over the past 40 years to largely Republican candidates and causes. (“Not that there’s anything illegal about that.”)

Regardless of political affiliations, at least one of their donations is sure to perturb just about every political sensibility. Consider that:

  • As an early anti-Trumper, Ricketts funded a $5 million political action committee (PAC) backing the 2016 presidential campaign of then Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. After Walker dropped out, Ricketts bought anti-Trump TV ads.
  • When Trump later won the GOP nomination, the family quickly partnered with billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson to start a pro-Trump PAC to raise $45 million for Donald Trump’s general election campaign.
  • Daughter Laura Ricketts was one of the top contributors to Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid and gave a half million dollars to start a lesbian SuperPAC.
  • More recently, the Ricketts family PAC – oddly named “Ending Spending” – spent $1.7 million to defeat Beto O’Rourke’s Senate bid in Texas.

None of this is to suggest which donation(s) should be saluted or shamed. Partisanship is not what’s important here. I’m personally of the view that massive political donations in support of any candidate or party are crushing our system and institutions more than any single politician. Thank you, super-rich.

If anything, this weekend’s donation tumult reminds us how hard the nation’s unprincipled campaign financing laws make it for fans to focus on the pastime part of baseball. After all, few like the poverty-level wages paid to most minor-league players. No one likes wondering how much of this year’s ticket price increase might partially fund a conservative or liberal cause we don’t agree with. And we certainly don’t like MLB and its owners putting their financial thumbs on the scales of elections they can’t vote in – especially when they intimate not being fully informed about the candidates they are favoring financially.

But if MLB executives and owners truly think baseball is the best run sport and best analogy for life, then they should establish a PAC dedicated to electing candidates who will institute a baseball-style luxury tax on political donations. In this way, perhaps a few more Mr. Smiths could afford to run and go to Washington to do more than just raise money from the super-rich corporations and individuals for the next election cycle.

Then for once we could earnestly say, “Thank you, MLB.”

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