Mailbag: Is it currently ethical to attend MLB or MiLB games?

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The MLB season is starting soon, and around a month later, we’ll also get the start of the Minor League Baseball season, the first since 2019… and the first under its new, shrunken format. MLB’s hostile takeover of MiLB brought a mailbag question to my inbox, so that’s what we’re going to tackle today.

I have been living in New York City for the past few years after living previously in a MLB city without Minor League baseball nearby. I have really enjoyed going to MiLB games, especially the Brooklyn Cyclones, who survived the latest MiLB restructuring. I am also planning to move close to Coney Island and was looking forward to going to more Cyclones games.

However, given the myriad problems with pro baseball generally and MiLB specifically, I’ve been trying to consider whether it is ethical to support MiLB (and pro baseball generally) in the modern era. Is there a way to attend games (which are super fun), support the game and players without feeding into the general anti-player milieu that has developed and progressed recently? What do you think?

—Jonathan

There are layers to this that merit exploration, but I’ll start out by saying that if you’re truly uncomfortable with directly supporting the Major League Baseball machine, and would feel better without it in your life than you do with it, then there is nothing wrong with cutting yourself off from the league. Baseball exists in more places than just MLB or even MiLB: your schedule for viewing will be different, but you can make it happen if you still want the game in your life somehow. I readily admit that I didn’t bother watching the 2020 mid-pandemic MLB season: I was never comfortable with it happening in the first place, as y’all have read in these digital pages, so I just didn’t watch. I kept tabs on the Padres a bit, but mostly from afar, and didn’t even tune in for the first postseason appearance they had since I was still a college student and fledgling writer, but even the idea of watching felt wrong to me.

So I found other things to occupy my time that didn’t give me the same uncomfortable feelings, because the last thing I needed during a literal pandemic was to add to the pile of things making existence uncomfortable. (This is where I plug my other newsletter.)

With vaccinations happening, I feel better about my prospects of actually watching a game in 2021: maybe not at first, since we’re certainly not out of the woods yet, and especially since the league is still clearly most interested in just making whatever money they can, given their protocols for fans in games (wear a mask, unless you’re eating or drinking, which you can do for the entire game if you want). But eventually I’ll be there mentally in a way that 2020 was never going to allow for.

Your question was about avoiding feeding into the anti-player feelings of the day, though, not coronavirus: I just mentioned all of that as a way to show that yes, cut yourself off if it’s what makes sense to you in the moment, for whatever reason you need to do so. When it comes to support for labor, the best guide is labor itself. The MLB Players Association isn’t asking anyone to stop supporting the league just because the owners are a bunch of greedy dinguses, or because Rob Manfred’s goal is to make the gap between “fun” and “profits” as wide as possible, so, unless you’ve got a personal stumbling block to contend with (i.e., pandemic baseball), you should feel free to continue to view games, buy merchandise, read about it online, attend games, whatever.

I’m not a big fan of personal boycotts of businesses, not because of any idea that businesses Have A Right To Their Decisions Without Consequence, or whatever. But because a single person or a few people boycotting isn’t doing anything. A large, organized effort is one thing — again, let’s say the players ask you to stop supporting MLB, as part of an effort to get the league to pay attention to the players’ demands, or, for non-hypotheticals in the real world, look to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement of Palestine — but you’re not a bad person for continuing to watch or attend MLB games just because the people who own the teams and guide the league’s direction are assholes.

“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is often misused, trotted out to justify people continuing to make some bad, selfish decisions, because what else is there for you to do? The point of the phrase, though, is that you can’t make little individual, ethical decisions that result in a better world: these kinds of movements need to be, well, just that. Something much larger and more organized:

Ethical consumerism ends up dividing the working class by implying that those who purchase “ethically” are more moral than those who do not, regardless of their means of doing so. This, however, is not true. Very few people support the cruel actions going on inside factory farms. Very few people agree that the Amazon rainforest should be clear-cut to make way for factory farms and slaughterhouses. Whether they possess means to purchase “ethical” products is an entirely separate question. Capitalism has effectively co-opted the idea of ethical choices, and uses it to hide the inarguable cruelty inherent to the profit motive.

It does not matter how many people turn to more “ethical” options under capitalism. The system will never be ethical. Exploitation, oppression and environmental destruction are inherent to a system based on private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. The answer to this question is not to be found in the individualistic approach of ethical consumption, but rather through organizing all layers of the working class in a united struggle against capitalism, which is the root of all modern exploitation and misery.

To circle back to the beginning: if you’re aware all you’re doing is making yourself feel better by stopping watching, and that’s what you need, then by all means, stop! As far as some theory of change on a larger scale goes, though, it’s a dead end. I think that, so long as you’re aware of the difference in what you’re accomplishing, it can be useful to give up on a company, or league, or product, or whatever. There’s a difference, to me, between trotting out a supposedly more moral and ethical condescension to the world around you because you decided to buy from Wal-Mart instead of Amazon, as described in the quoted passage above, and not buying from Amazon this time because it made your brain feel a little bit better at a time your brain really needed that boost. Placebos can be useful every now and again.

You don’t need to go in the other direction and assume that by continuing to support the league, or constantly going to MiLB games, that you’re doing the players a favor, either. So don’t feel like you need to increase your budget for baseball to keep MLB from shrinking the minors again. Their decisions are divorced from the reality of things: this is just what they want to do, and how they want to do it, and the profits you give them are on top of the profits their cutthroat decisions make them, not a reason to stop doing the cutthroat stuff.

MiLB’s players are not organized — if only they were — so you’re not going to see them call for anyone to stop attending games. You can go with a clear conscience, in that regard. But if that changes, and they do eventually organize, and they want to pressure the league by having people stop attending games, then that’s what you should do if you want to support them. It’s no different than when warehouse workers go on strike and ask you to avoid shopping Amazon on Prime Day, or if UPS’ union told everyone to use FedEx and the USPS this week as a bargaining tactic. Ignoring their requests is feeding into the anti-player milieu, as you put it. But there is no there there, right now, so play ball [sports term].

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