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Bringing Communities Together

James Witte and Marissa Kiss column: Immigrant athletes can become agents of change

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Juan Soto

Washington Nationals star Juan Soto smiled after his win in the 2022 Home Run Derby.

By James Witte and Marissa Kiss

After Juan Soto reportedly turned down the Washington Nationals’ 15-year, $440 million offer to keep him with the team, trade rumors have been swirling. Naysayers say trading Soto makes no sense from a baseball or business perspective.

In our view, the Nats should do everything in their power to keep Soto for another reason. His tenure in Washington represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate how immigrant athletes bring a community together.

Soto, a dynamic 23-year-old born in the Dominican Republic, was a key part of the Nats’ 2019 World Series championship team. In 2020, he was Major League Baseball’s batting champion. In 2021 and 2022, he was named to the All-Star squad and, in 2022, he won the annual Home Run Derby.

But Soto stands out for reasons beyond his on-the-field accomplishments. Like other foreign-born athletes playing high-profile sports in the United States, he’s come to embody the worth of diversity and its ability to bring communities together — fostering a greater understanding and inclusion of immigrants generally, as well as championing the success of other Dominican athletes.

As someone who understands the challenges and obstacles Dominican athletes endure, Soto donated his $200,000 earnings from the 2021 All-Star Game and Home Run Derby to other players from his country, helping them pursue their goals.

Soto makes his contributions on the baseball diamond, but other Dominicans and Latinos perform essential jobs in the service sector, in the transportation and material moving industry, and still others in management, business, science and the arts.

In other professional sports as well, foreign-born athletes stand out across the country. In the National Basketball Association, for example, it is Slovenian Luka Doncic in Dallas, Serbian Nikola Jokic in Denver and Greek-Nigerian Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Foreign-born athletes dominate the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.

Collectively, they are human faces of the U.S. immigrant experience. This long has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

In the District of Columbia and in other cities, millions of fans from a wide range of economic, political, social and cultural backgrounds rally around athletes such as Soto. Their support translates to billions of dollars of yearly revenue.

But these athletes also generate a sense of community. Fan bases are built by connections with individual players, and this is of great value to the teams and leagues. They should highlight the stories and contributions of immigrant athletes, and how diversity on the field is mirrored in the diversity of their fans.

Similar to years past, players who took the field at the 2022 MLB All-Star Game not only represented the best of baseball, but also the diversity of individuals living in the U.S. On the American League side, 50% of the players were foreign-born; on the National League team, it was 23%.

Notably, due to a new clause in the MLB collective bargaining agreement, Commissioner Rob Manfred made an announcement honoring the selection of both Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera to the 2022 All-Star Game.

As Manfred stated, “Albert and Miguel are two of the most accomplished players of their generation. They have also represented the baseball traditions of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela with excellence ... Albert and Miguel are two all-time greats whose achievements warrant this special recognition.”

Immigrant athletes have the potential to become agents of change, illustrating the value of diversity and teamwork in their respective sports. Teams and leagues would be well served to reach out to community leaders, and offer to bring this message to the U.S. cities the players and franchises now call home. Soto presents this kind of opportunity for the Nats.

In an era when some pro athletes and teams are seeking to manage tarnished reputations and images, public outreach campaigns seeking to show the benefits of diversity and inclusion — as compared to the costs of divisiveness and polarization — would truly give back to the community. It’s a winning formula for everybody.

James Witte holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University and is director of the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University. Contact him at: jwitte@gmu.edu

Marissa Kiss is a researcher at the IIR. Her dissertation, “Baseball: The (Inter) National Pastime,” examined immigrant MLB players and immigration policy. This work is part of a new IIR initiative, “Immigrants, Athletes, and Inclusiveness.” Contact her at: mkiss@gmu.edu

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