Arizona's Immigration Law: A Sports Story

The sports industry, like Hollywood, is special among American trades: it exists on a public pedestal, scrutinized from all angles, able to affect the national culture with its gestures, giving us all an opportunity to discuss the issues of society.

And so it has been with Arizona's new immigration law, which seems to have its enemies everywhere, but none more noticeable--outside the realm of politics itself--than in the world of pro sports.

Ever since the law was signed and the ensuing controversy began, sports have been connected. First, there were calls from liberal activists for Major League Baseball to pull its 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix, to pressure the state into repealing the new policy.

Then, sports figures themselves started speaking out.

The Major League Baseball Players Association put out a statement last Friday denouncing the new law, warning that players traveling to Phoenix to play against the Arizona Diamondbacks (Major League Baseball's only Arizona-based team) "could be adversely affected, even though their presence in the United States is legal."

And MLBPA threatened action, if the law stands: "The Major League Baseball Players Association opposes this law as written. We hope that the law is repealed or modified promptly. If the current law goes into effect, the MLBPA will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members," MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said in the official statement.

But that wasn't it. Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said he wouldn't travel to the 2011 All-Star Game if it's held in Arizona: "I'm not going. I have to support my people, people I believe in. If those people were bad people, hell no I wouldn't support them; but they're good people," Guillen said. "As a coach, no [I won't go]. As a player it's a different thing. If the commissioner wants to play the All-Star game in Arizona, we have to show up. As a coach, I'm not going. They don't need me. The show's going on without me."

Venezuelan-born Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cesar Izturis spoke out, too: "It's a bad thing," Izturis said. "Now they're going to go after everybody, not just the people behind the wall. Now they're going to come out on the street. What if you're walking on the street with your family and kids? They're going to go after you."

And Wednesday the Phoenix Suns, in the midst of a 7-game playoff series against San Antonio, wore uniforms bearing the name "Los Suns" for game two of the NBA's Western Conference Semifinals, in protest of the new law.

NBA Commissioner David Stern approved, saying it's "appropriate what the Suns are doing"; point guard Steve Nash spoke out against the law, as did Suns General Manager Steve Kerr.

It's unusual for sports teams to make bald political statements, such as this, notes The Christian Science Monitor's Patrick Jonsson: it risks dividing and alienating fans along the lines of controversial issues.

And it's true: sports are supposed to be free of politics.

You don't go to a baseball game for the political debate. You tune in to ESPN, generally, because you prefer sports coverage to MSNBC and Fox News. Sports typically afford people of diverse backgrounds and opinions the opportunity to sit, commingle, and find a commonplace in something that's perhaps more natural and human than arguing over government policy. That's part of the beauty.

It's questionable how the athletic foray into immigration politics will be received. According to a CBS/New York Times poll, most Americans approve of the law: 51 percent of respondents said the law was "about right" in its approach. So the Suns, MLBPA, and others will certainly encounter those who don't agree.

In baseball, the response backlash has been helped by MLB's large Hispanic quotient. Roughly 28 percent of MLB players were born outside the U.S.--to be precise, 27.7 percent of players who made their teams' opening-day rosters in April--the vast majority of whom are Hispanic. That's a constituency group the players' union is employed to protect; as players like Izturis speak out, it's the union's job to be their voice--regardless of whether fans agree or disagree with Arizona's law. The Suns' move, it appears, was less motivated by internal constituency politics and more by a desire to make a statement on the law.

There's precedent for pro sports to intervene in state politics. Coincidentally, the most relevant example involves racial politics in Arizona: the NFL pulled Super Bowl XXVII (held in 1993) out of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona because the state did not recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day--an edict made by Gov. George Meacham in 1987, which voters in the state elected to support in 1990. After that, Arizona voters changed their minds in 1992, voting to recognize the law; in March of 1993, the NFL awarded Super Bowl XXX (held in 1996) to Tempe.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, particularly after the players' union released its own statement, faces pressure to publicly oppose the law--and to threaten to pull the All-Star Game from Phoenix. Several days ago, it seemed quite unlikely he would do so, but if Hispanic players voice fears about going to Arizona, the union may be able to force his hand. NBA Commissioner David Stern's approval of the Suns' protest statement seems to open up space for Selig to say, or do, something.

I can't quite decide if all of this is good or bad. Sports appear to have entered the political realm, and it's hazy as to whether they belong there. History has seen some powerful political moments to happen on the field, most of them having to do with racial equality and civil rights: the integration of baseball, the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, Jesse Owens' performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Joe Louis's fights with Max Schleming. So I'm inclined to say yes, they do. In public life, if you believe something, sometimes you have to use your public profile to say something about it. But that's easier to swallow when you agree with the statement being made.

The NHL and NFL have franchises in Arizona, too, but baseball, with its heavy quotient of Latin players, will most likely remain the center of immigration politics, when it comes to sports.

When the first Hispanic player refuses to travel to Arizona for a road game against the Diamondbacks, things will really start to get interesting.