The Tampa Bay Rays, Pride, and the Perils of Corporate Branding
At the 16th annual Tampa Bay Rays Pride Night, five players refused to wear the LGBT pride flag, calling it a "faith-based decision." (Photo by Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)
The refusal of 5 Tampa Bay Rays to wear the Pride flag should raise questions about strategies in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.
Every year, there are multiple Military Appreciation Nights (“MAN”?) in Major League Baseball. Every year, teams inform players that they will be wearing camouflage versions of their hats or uniforms to show their solidarity with the US armed forces. Every year, soldiers are granted free tickets, and many show up in full regalia, to the delight of fans.
For franchises, this is a smart business move. Partner with the pro-military brand, and you get bigger crowds and garner affection by association. This marketing method is not used only with the military. Over the past two decades, different Major League franchises have done this with Pride, attempting to secure the “pink dollar” by having a night to celebrate the LGBTQ community. Corporate associations with the Pride brand have for decades proven to be lucrative and omnipresent, as anyone who has attended a Pride march with its suffocating corporate partnerships could attest. There’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—Pride Night, like MAN, is transactional, not transformational.
This commodification of an identity and its attendant struggle can have dramatic pitfalls. Of course, we should want and expect every aspect of our society—especially the sports world—to be welcome and opening to LGBTQ people. But one result of commodification is that we start to confuse corporate representation with actual political and social progress.
The other problem with corporate-branded “appreciations” as a substitute for struggle is that it opens doors for bigots to cry injustice. The far right presents its leaders as anti-corporate populists because they oppose “woke” corporations’ imposing their social beliefs—no matter if the messengers are all bankrolled by billionaires. This can lead good people on the left to defend companies like Nike as if they are somehow allies in struggle instead of being corporations attempting to connect with a left-leaning youth market.
This has revealed itself in Tampa Bay, where the Rays baseball team attempted to celebrate their 16th annual Pride Night by having players wear the Pride flag on their uniforms or hats. Five players refused to wear the rainbow flag on what they said were religious grounds, calling it a “faith-based decision.” Keep in mind that Pride night is designed to be an innocuous event whose only message is not “support the ‘liberal Gay Agenda’” but simply that LGBTQ people are welcome at the ballpark. By refusing to wear the flag, the players are using religion as a cover for bigotry. But now the Tampa Bay Five, even though they were not sanctioned for their act, look like political rebels in the GOP’s war against “corporate wokeness.”
It is impossible to separate the decisions of these players from the actions of their thuggish governor, Ron DeSantis. First, he rammed through his “don’t say gay” law, which serves to attack LGBTQ teachers and drive them from the classroom. This then led to him to attack Disney after it spoke out against the law. And lastly, DeSantis’s practice of punishing people who he perceives to be his political enemies, resulted this week in his killing a $35 million state funding bill that the Tampa Bay Rays wanted for a youth sports/player development complex. He did this out of spite, because the Rays tweeted last weekend about gun violence after the child massacre in Uvalde and announced a $50,000 donation to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gun-law reform.
It should therefore not surprise us that right-wing players would feel the political wind against their backs and go after “woke corporations,” anti-gun franchise owners, and LGBTQ people in one fell swoop. And now on top of it all, they get to look like martyrs in the face of corporate rule and angry tweeters. A bright side to this mess is that several Rays players have stepped up to explain why they’re proud to wear the Pride flag. These players are using their platform to amplify the necessity of standing with LGBTQ people, especially at this moment. Their bravery should be clarifying as to what we should be demanding out of Pride night. Let the anti-gay players opt out. Let’s see who is actually for LGBTQ rights with no pressure from management. Even if the reality of how many players would actually wear the flag could be disheartening, it would mean all the more to see which players do choose to represent. It also gets us out of being bedfellows with pink-logo-branded corporate entities that are trolling for dollars and will duck for cover at the slightest friction with the right. Independence from corporations is also necessary, because rightists should never be allowed to present themselves as martyrs against big business, especially while they’re bankrolled by the very people they pretend to oppose. Corporations are not agents of change. Brand representation isn’t progress, and commodified dissent only mangles the struggle.
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