A friend of mine recently wrote an article about the Atlanta Braves’ plans to leave their current home of Turner Field and relocate to a suburban area north of Atlanta. The Braves’ management have strangely claimed that the move is necessary because of chronic transit issues. As Eric notes, these issues aren’t likely to be mitigated or fixed by this planned relocation. In addition to the pure truth that virtually nowhere in Atlanta is immune to transit issues, the site of relocation is not only near an especially traffic-ridden intersection, it is beyond the reach of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit authority.
Rightfully so, I think, Eric calls our attention to the demographic affinities between the Braves’ fan base and the people living in the area around the site’s new location. The Braves management itself also calls our attention to this affinity, noting that, “The new stadium will be located near the geographic center of the Braves’ fan base.” After pointing to this affinity, Eric then highlights the implicit and historical antagonism between that fan base and the people living around Turner Field’s current location. The former is largely white and middle class while the latter are largely black and lower income. Thus, he concludes that the Braves’ move is fairly racist. Of course, things don’t actually line up so clearly along a racial divide. Cobb County is not some lily-white Pleasantville and Southeast Atlanta is not Harlem (Plus, even Harlem isn’t Harlem). But race definitely looms large in the Braves decision, which was Eric’s point.
The Braves and their defenders have downplayed race by claiming that the Braves’ decision is simply “all about money.” The Braves simply couldn’t afford to remain at Turner Field, so they had to move, claimed the team president. This logic of it being “simply about money” always bothers me because it’s not only naive and dismissive, but it often overestimates how “purely” businesses think. By “purely” I’m referring to the most rudimentary tenet of any “good” business model: make more money than you spend, at whatever cost. The latter half of the statement is rarely upheld in an autonomous, independent sense, especially by sports teams, who are often heavily subsidized by the cities that house them, despite no real material benefits for the city. In other words, sports teams largely defer costs, risks, to others rather than taking them on for themselves. Stated bluntly, most good businesses put their risks in other people’s hands. In the case of Turner Field, those hands were the taxpayers of the city of Atlanta and the homes of the largely black communities flanking the stadium. How can this be simply about money when the stadium exists solely because money wasn’t enough? Before the ground was even broken, the money that paid for the hardhats and the shovels had to be explicitly bolstered to a very particular community and its members: Atlanta.
Sports teams are actually notorious for getting subsidies, freeing their hands, through very sophisticated and questionable promises of development, jobs and prestige (note how the press release for the new location claims that the new stadium will be “world-class”) and then abandoning the cities once the cities either a) decline to continue to bear the load (i.e. pay for a new stadium, upgrade the stadium, allow more tax breaks,) and/or 2) get one-upped by a city with a more accommodating offer. In fact, I recently wrote about how this historical process played out in Brooklyn through a rather peculiar series of “hand transactions” that involved Jay Z.
Given this history of how sports teams routinely treat cities, I’m inclined to agree with Eric regarding the significance of race, but in a fairly different way. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to read this as the Braves caving into its fans’ subconscious racism. That logic can only lead to us pleading for them to stay at Turner Field. I think it’s more useful, perhaps even more accurate, to think of this as the Braves telling us that their allegiance to Atlanta was always contingent upon “who” Atlanta was. As indicated by their somewhat laughable desire to remain the “Atlanta Braves” despite planning to move beyond the mass transit system, the Atlanta Braves view “Atlanta” as a free-floating signifier, a removable sticker to be easily removed at will; even though this sticker adheres to literally concrete buildings and people, nothing stops them from peeling it and shunting it onto some new, more profitable surface.
Eric draws our attention to the black people who currently live around Turner Field and their lack of affinity with the Braves’ beloved base, but I can’t help but think of the black people who had to standby when Turner Field was first built. I’m sure that they weren’t exactly happy when the ’96 Olympic committee forced all this development in their backyards. Even if they were, as they learned to accept the endless nights and days of increased traffic, increased noise pollution and crowded streets, for better or worse they could at least be assured the stadium would be around for awhile; at least the Braves had committed themselves to the city, to them, in some form.
Now that this form is scheduled to disintegrate and rematerialize eerily close to home, I think we should note how all sports teams generally treat cities and think deeply about what it means for them to bear the names of our cities without any rooted, accountable form of responsibility toward them (and us). If this is how teams want to treat us, perhaps they should pay for their “world-class” stadiums with their own money. I doubt Cobb County will learn from this lesson. Mother Jones reports that they’ve already laid down $300 million. But if somehow things don’t solidify in Cobb and Turner Field remains, maybe this time around we can turn off the Southern hospitality and turn on the Southern stubbornness. The Atlanta Braves have won one title in 17 years, they don’t care about their local community or the city and they promote that racist tomahawk chop. Sounds like a bad neighbor to me.