The “stick to sports” mantra took on a life of its own in 2017, as the interweaving of sports and politics was undeniable and, ultimately, angered quite a few sports fans. Still, protests during the national anthem or political tweets by athletes never actually got in the way of the action or stopped games from being played.
But politics have halted a college baseball series between the University of Southern Mississippi and Stony Brook University, a public school in New York. The two schools were scheduled to meet in a three-game series in February, but dueling declarations in each state have now made that series impossible. The kicker? It has absolutely nothing to do with baseball.
At the crux of this is Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 — an anti-gay marriage law that’s been dubbed the “religious freedom bill.” It allows businesses and the government to deny services to gay couples, while defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It was signed into law in 2016, went into effect in October and is still awaiting a Supreme Court appeal.
In response to HB 1523, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo banned all state-sponsored non-essential travel to Mississippi. And since Stony Brook is a public school, the trip to Southern Miss to play baseball — an action that has nothing to do with politics, sexuality or marriage — is off the table.
Instead of playing a weekend series in Hattiesburg on Feb. 23-25, USM will travel to take part in a tournament at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“I just hate losing the three home games,” USM head coach Scott Berry said. “I’m sure it’s going to cost us for sure. That’s three gates and everything that goes into a game day in terms of revenue.”
Money is one concern — and indeed the way in which Cuomo wants Mississippi to feel punishment for a law with which he disagrees. But there should be a larger concern here too: the young people thrust into the center of this fight.
Whatever your opinion is of Mississippi’s law and New York’s response, disrupting a college baseball series that had been in the works since 2014 isn’t actually moving forward the dialogue on this very important but clearly tangential topic. It’s turning sports and college athletes into collateral damage for a war they’re not trying to fight.
If the state government of New York wants to restrict its employees from visiting Mississippi for a conference about tourism or some such thing, fine. If the governors of Mississippi and New York want to stare each other down about their social beliefs, that’s fine too. But neither of these things should affect college-baseball schedules. We’re not talking about state employees by and large (except coaches and staff members) — we’re talking about college students on a baseball team.
Around the time of the Mississippi bill, North Carolina had a similarly controversial law requiring that people use the public bathroom that matches their gender at birth. That was famously challenged by the NBA, which pulled its All-Star game from the state. North Carolina backed down and the All-Star game is headed there in 2019. Cuomo, for his and New York’s part, also banned non-essential travel to North Carolina.
But even that’s different than what’s happening with these two college baseball teams. The NBA All-Star game is a national event that has eyes on it across the world. It can be a platform for social change.
A college baseball series between Southern Miss and Stony Brook isn’t going to change Mississippi lawmakers’ opinions on gay marriage. So why put young baseball players in the middle of a sticky political issue?
There’s an easier solution: Save the fight for another place — the right place — and let them play ball like normal.
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