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Better Hate An Owner

John Malone Hasn’t Really Thought About It

An illustration of Braves owner John Malone.
Illustration by Jim Cooke

Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. Today’s entry is about Atlanta Braves owner John Malone.

How much of his soul did he lose in making his money?

Former Vice President Al Gore once called John Malone “Darth Vader.” This doesn’t seem to be in reference to John being particularly evil or asphyxiating employees with telekinesis, but more because he was, I guess, extremely effective at acquiring telecom assets in the 1990s. He isn’t a cartoonishly evil rich person, like the Sacklers or Rupert Murdoch, who seem to kind of idly relish human pain and suffering because they know it makes them richer. Malone’s evil is the boring, patrician, banal corporate type—endless amoral acquisition, opportunism, and pursuit of deregulation, regardless of externalities or long term consequences, with no accountability. Just pure abstract American Business. ”John Malone” is a suitably unremarkable name for this type of person.

Is he a fail-child?

No. He was born well-to-do and then became extremely well-to-do. By most metrics he has been very successful, and decidedly un-fail. Most parents would be proud to call John Malone their son, unless they were postcolonial Marxist professors, or Flarf poets. 

He has multiple engineering degrees, is the single largest landowner in the United States, and also sort of owns the Atlanta Braves, who are universally and gladly considered to be America’s Team. He even has a PhD in Operations Research from Johns Hopkins, which I assume is similar to an MBA, or quite possibly even better. He’s an Irish Catholic guy from New England who got his start at a company called Western Microwave Incorporated and eventually, with Sebulba-esque ruthlessness and tenacity, became one of the most powerful cable executives in the country. Basically, he’s Jack Donaghy. Or, maybe more accurately, a very boring version of Ted Turner. 

How much public financing has he sucked out of the community?

Quite a bit! Most estimates have the Cobb County Braves Stadium deal directly extracting somewhere between $350 million and $400 million in public money when all is said and done. At one point the county discussed permanently closing public parks so they could stay current on their debt obligations to the Braves. You can’t blame the Braves though, right? They’re just a Firm operating within the Market, seeking its Best Interest. Many of us would likely agree to live in the rafters of Cumberland Mall if we were promised $400 million in public funds to do so, would we not? 

The entire deal was famously negotiated with a rogue county commissioner named Tim Lee, without input from voters, or even his fellow commissioners. Although Defector’s cruel readers would undoubtedly wish for me to “eviscerate” and “go in on” Mr. Lee at this point, I refuse to do so, because he tragically died of cancer in 2019. As stated in his obituary in the Marietta Daily Journal, “Former Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee's loved ones remember him as a man whose only concern was doing the right thing.” That’s surely how he will also be remembered by history.

The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is he?

As with a lot of old rich guys, Trump makes this one pretty easy. Between himself and two Liberty Media divisions, Malone donated $750,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee. Trump of course disavows any relationship to Epstein but has been quoted as saying, “I didn’t know him. But he got a very raw deal. Very raw. But I didn’t know him. But he was treated very unfairly. But we weren’t friends. Thank you John Malone for the $750,000.” 

What are his political affiliations?

He’s on the board of the Cato Institute, identifies as a libertarian, donated almost a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration committee and then, shocked and appalled by the boorish demeanor of our 45th president, claimed early in the 2020 election cycle that he would be supporting Mike Bloomberg for president. That was before it became clear that, while one can still easily purchase entire state legislatures in this country, the actual Democratic presidential primary can be a little harder to pull off, especially when you’re Mike Bloomberg and a 19-year-old Bard student your campaign is paying $3,000 per week convinces you to look directly into the camera and deadpan, “I freaking love the taste of this gay ice cream. Hashtag eggplant emoji.” 

Who is John C. Malone? I don’t really know. You probably don’t either. I can tell you this much: He’s the guy who owns the company that owns the Atlanta Braves. Does that mean he’s the owner of the Atlanta Braves? I’m not really sure. If you buy a Playstation for your son, do you own the Playstation? Is owning a company the same thing as having a son? And if you have a son, do you legally own him? I’m unable to answer these questions right now, and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. 

Every informed Braves fan knows that while other teams are controlled by delusional mercurial freaks who insist on micromanaging payroll, free agent signings, and sexual harassment coverups, the Bravos are actually owned by a faceless conglomerate. That’s Liberty Media, which determines payroll based on, I assume, some kind of benign actuarial formula, with all Baseball Decisions then being left to the steadfast baseball steward known as the Chairman of the Braves. Or something like that. It is hard to know how comforting to find this arrangement. 

As mentioned above, a large part of Malone’s extremely considerable personal wealth is made up of his prodigious land holdings. In 2011 he surpassed Ted Turner as the largest private landowner in the U.S. and has described his addiction to acreage as a “virus” given to him by Ted himself. Owning more of America than any other private citizen seems like a very deliberate choice, and presumably a sports team/media empire owner type with multiple engineering degrees would have a very deliberate reason for pursuing that goal. However, it’s kind of hard to find anything concrete about why exactly he owns over 2 million acres of our glorious homeland. 

Any direct quotes from him on the subject are comically vague: He went to a farm once as a kid. He likes walking around, out in the open. He enjoys riding a horse sometimes. To be fair, these are not unrelatable experiences and interests. Many of us have also walked around before, at some point in our lives. However, very few of us own over 2 million acres of forest and ranch land. So, if Malone isn’t simply acquiring as much walking-around space as humanly possible, what is his motivation? It’s perfectly plausible that it’s just sheer hubris, a very big indulgence for a guy who doesn’t seem to partake in that many other ostentatious displays of wealth. It’s also possible that he dreams of one day presiding over a sovereign Randian paradise following the collapse of civilization, where he and his fellow rich guys (and gals!) can smoke cigars in saunas filled with vaporized colloidal silver after a long day hunting down human children for sport. 

Or perhaps his comment about Ted Turner giving him a “virus” wasn’t a joke, but a desperate cry for help. Maybe, sometime in the mid-1990s, in the midst of the Braves’ historic 14 straight division title run, Ted inoculated John with an experimental virus developed in a secret underground laboratory in Montana. Maybe it’s called Ted-97, and causes the infected subject to ruthlessly acquire land and media assets, while also owning the Atlanta Braves. Or, hell, you know what, maybe the guy really does just love walking around!

I have been to the house Malone built, the new Cobb County Braves Stadium. It is a Nice Stadium. It is, I would even say, a Great Place To Catch A Ball Game. But it’s also kind of fucking creepy. The stadium itself is surrounded by a sort of Braves-themed Disney World called The Battery, created in the image of the sort of thriving walkable downtown area that might organically spring up around an actual urban ballpark maintained by a team that invests in and cares about the surrounding community. This is notable because it is in fact not a thriving walkable downtown area, but a giant shopping center, built in a field next to I-285. 

You can walk through these fake streets drinking a real beer. There are clowns on stilts juggling baseballs. I haven’t attended a game this season but I am certain that any mask requirements only exist in theory. Everything adds up to create a perfectly Caucasian suburban neighborhood pool party vibe. The Braves’ Cobb Exodus has allowed fans to avoid the shattered warzone of Downtown Atlanta and feel like they never really left their Alpharetta subdivisions with names like Oakwoode Brook, or Brookwood Oakes, or The Brooks at Oakwood. They have just traveled to the part of it where the stilt-clown juggles baseballs.

In 2013, as PR for the new stadium, the Braves hilariously provided a “heat map” of the distribution of ticket sales throughout the Atlanta metro area, with Turner Field located beyond the coveted Fertile Crescent of paying fans, and the New Braves Stadium Site situated at the heart of a dense crimson sea of Brian McCann jerseys. Without context, anyone remotely familiar with the history and racial geography of Atlanta would likely guess the map was demonstrating a different motivation for the move.

Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, where the Braves originally played after moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee, was built on top of the rubble of the predominantly black Washington-Rawson neighborhood. The neighborhood was bulldozed as part of a policy of “urban renewal,” which James Baldwin helpfully translated decades ago as “negro removal.” The plan was to replace it with a brand new professional sports stadium (and beautiful sprawling parking lots), before any team had even agreed to move to the city. It was ethnic cleansing with a human face, part of a concerted effort to force black people away from city centers which was carried out by governments in Atlanta and other American cities throughout the 20th century. Like the Cobb County Braves Stadium, the Milwaukee Braves’ move to Atlanta was also negotiated in secret, without voter input, this time by Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. That was the same mayor, by the way, who once had an actual physical wall constructed to keep black people out of Atlanta’s wealthy (and at that time, white) Cascade Heights neighborhood. 

Obviously I’m not going to try to claim that any of this stuff was John Malone’s fault. At that time he was probably off at some prestigious university getting his second or even third degree in engineering. But it’s hard not to be shocked by the “optics” of a team physically abandoning what is left of a black community that was literally bulldozed at least in part with the intention of luring some (ANY) professional sports team (and almost the Athletics, before the move was nixed by the American League)—and then fleeing to the suburbs north of the city, just as so many white families have done from the 1950s onward. Imagine a professional sports team doing all that just because they couldn’t extort more public resources from a city that literally leveled entire communities to lure them there in the first place. Again, before John Malone’s time. There’s no real reason to believe he’s thought about it much.

This goes back to my description of John Malone’s type of evil. It’s not a sadistic evil. It doesn’t relish the pain of others. It just doesn’t give a shit about it. It doesn’t notice. The results are more or less the same.

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