How Football Forced Major League Baseball To Wake Up On Domestic Violence

CREDIT: Ben Van Houten/Seattle Mariners

The reverberations from the gruesome surveillance footage that surfaced last summer of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his fiance unconscious and dragging her out of an elevator were felt far beyond football. While it was certainly not the first time a professional athlete committed an act of violence against a woman, the Rice incident was arguably the most visible, and it forced other leagues to take stock of their own records on the issue.

“I’ll admit, we weren’t on this issue before,” said Dan Halem, chief labor officer for Major League Baseball. “We were heavily focused on inclusion … sexual orientation issue, but the whole domestic violence issue we haven’t focused on and I’m not going to tell you otherwise.”

That’s not to say baseball was blissfully free and unaware of any instance of domestic violence before the Rice video made national headlines and the NFL botched its response. According to some critics, baseball had been even more lax in its approach. Numerous major leaguers over the years have been accused of or charged with domestic violence; in the last quarter-century, however, none has been punished on the league level. Few have by their individual teams. So if the Rice incident exposed the NFL’s glaring lack of a comprehensive strategy for addressing issues like domestic violence, MLB officials say it served as a similar wake-up call for them.

Unlike the NFL, baseball wasn’t forced to enter crisis mode last summer and instead wanted “to address it in a way that is authentic, would be lasting and make sense, rather than being reactive,” Halem said. As a result, baseball has emerged as a point of comparison with the NFL, whose policies both before and after the Rice incident have been roundly criticized. Joined by the sport’s union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and alongside a reputable domestic violence organization, baseball is putting the first pieces in place for what it says will be a “multi-year plan to attempt to change the culture vis-a-vis players and frankly, everybody else in baseball.”

So, how do you start from nothing? MLB officials met with what Halem estimates was over 20 national and local groups, many of which were focused on different demographics, as well as doctors, psychiatrists, and victims of domestic violence. From the outset, they were joined by the union, a crucial piece of the strategy that was absent in football’s response to the Rice incident.

“It’s very important from our end,” said Greg Bouris, director of communications for the Players Association. “We saw this as something that was inclusive — it wasn’t just about athletes, just about players, it was about people.”

One of the groups the league and union asked to meet with was the San Francisco-based Futures Without Violence, an organization with more than 30 years of experience working to end violence against women and children. “I have to say, they were really thoughtful in their approach, really comprehensive in terms of talking to a number of different organizations in this space,” said Rachel Smith Fals, senior vice president of the group. “I thought they asked all the right questions.”

While Futures hadn’t been this closely involved with a sports league before — Fals said they offered a series of recommendations to the NFL in the wake of the Rice incident “but they didn’t choose to go with any of the recommendations we made so we really haven’t been involved beyond that” — they have a long history of engaging men in violence prevention. And the comprehensive strategy they advocated was just what baseball was looking for.

Together, MLB, the union, and Futures decided they should begin the process internally. This year, during spring training, every major league player attended a mandatory session, in English or Spanish, focused on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Futures enlisted the help of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society out of Northeastern University to design the curriculum, with particular attention paid to their audience. “It was important to us that this be a conversation with the players and an interactive session and not a lecture,” Fals said.

Over a six-day period between spring training sites in Arizona and Florida, all 30 major league teams participated in the sessions, a whirlwind Fals described as “intense but wonderful.”

In addition to the major league sessions, clubs were required to offer the same training to their minor league players through different organizations that the league had engaged with and made available. MLB and the Players Association also created a confidential hotline for players that is staffed 24 hours a day with experienced individuals in the area of domestic violence (there is a separate line for minor league players). Futures also identified all of the local resources available to clubs in each market with expertise in violence against women and children so the league could make those available to the players. Finally, Halem said the league has added a domestic violence response team tasked with carrying out various measures that include ensuring the victims are safe and working with the club to provide necessary resources.

Of course, education and awareness are only part of the equation; as the NFL fiasco demonstrated, how a league reacts to players committing acts of violence against women carries tremendous weight. The major league players that have been accused of or charged with domestic violence or sexual assault are numerous and noteworthy, but incidents of discipline are rare. In 2006, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested for allegedly dragging his wife by her hair and hitting her; he started the next day against the Red Sox. Domestic violence charges against Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera were dropped in 2012. Last year, pitcher Alfredo Simon was accused of raping a young woman he met in a nightclub. He was not suspended and has since been acquired by the Detroit Tigers, who say they are aware of the ongoing lawsuit.

At a Senate Commerce committee hearing last December, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) pointed out that “Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has never sanctioned an MLB player for domestic violence, never in 22 years.” (Current commissioner Rob Manfred took over for Selig in January).

Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement includes a voluntary treatment program for players charged with domestic violence or sexual assault and it allows the commissioner or a team to issue punishment, but does not specify what that should be. Without a specific disciplinary policy for incidents of domestic or sexual assault, the rare sanctions have historically come from teams themselves, and sometimes then only after external pressure. The Red Sox, for instance, left outfielder Wil Cordero out of the lineup for eight games after his arrest on assault charges in 1997. After fans booed Cordero throughout the season and the governor called for an even longer suspension, the team finally released him after the season.

How best to respond to these crimes is exceedingly complex and there is no one-size-fits-all punishment, but the league and the union are currently negotiating a new policy to cover the discipline of major league players accused of domestic violence or crimes against women, a process they hope to wrap up in the next few weeks.

Last week, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said the NFL was “pretty stupid” not to have a specific domestic violence policy, instead lumping those crimes in with other personal conduct policy violations. And when the NFL did respond and issue new standards in the Rice aftermath, a key problem with those was the lack of collective bargaining — something MLB officials seem to have noticed. “Our viewpoint is that the policy will be stronger and more effective if it’s done jointly with the Players Association than if we just tried to use our existing rights and do it on our own,” Halem said.

Halem noted that the union wasn’t obligated to bargain with the league but they agreed to, meaning the process may take longer but will ultimately be stronger and ensure the interests of the players are represented. “The policy has to address every aspect of what would occur [starting with] protecting the victims,” Bouris said. “And then also as a union, we do have a fiduciary right to our union members, too, so we have to make sure their interests are protected, as well.”

Even though MLB is only now taking a comprehensive approach to domestic violence and sexual assault, individual teams have worked toward prevention for years. Futures Without Violence came highly recommended to the league by the San Francisco Giants, who have had a longstanding partnership with the organization. “We’ve worked closely with them to help them spread their message with domestic violence prevention and teaching at a very young age the importance of respecting each other,” said Staci Slaughter, the Giants’ senior vice president for communications and senior advisor to the CEO.

A few years before the Giants began their efforts, one city’s newfound love for baseball provided an excellent opportunity to elevate domestic violence issues in the community. In 1995, Seattle was consumed with Mariners fever. The team put together a spectacular end to the season and advanced to the American League Championship Series for the first time when an Edgar Martinez double drove in Ken Griffey Jr. and eliminated the Yankees. The slogan “Refuse to Lose” was plastered all over the city, which gave the executive director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence at the time (a huge Mariners fan) an idea: Ask the Mariners to take a public stand on domestic violence and call it “Refuse to Abuse.”

“To me, one of the most remarkable things about it is that all of this started with a cold call,” Kelly Starr, director of communications for the Coalition, said. “Their reaction was very simply, yes, this is the right thing to do, let’s do this.”

The annual 'Refuse to Abuse' 5K run in Seattle.

The annual “Refuse to Abuse” 5K run in Seattle.

CREDIT: Ben Van Houten/Seattle Mariners

In the 19 years since that call, the Mariners and the Coalition have continued to grow and revise the “Refuse to Abuse” partnership, which includes an annual 5K run, various public awareness campaigns featuring Mariners players (the team’s ace, Felix Hernandez, is the current spokesperson), youth baseball clinics, fundraisers, and more.

Perhaps the key component to their unique and enduring collaboration is that both sides are playing to their strengths. From the beginning, the Mariners were content to let the Coalition take the lead on the substantive component.

“One thing that’s important for us to always remember is we need to rely on the people who do this on a daily basis to … help us strategize and structure messages that will be impacting in a positive way,” said Joe Chard, Mariners’ vice president for corporate business and community relations. “We do a lot of things but at the end of the day, we’re a baseball team.”

For Starr, the partnership has demonstrated the power of non-traditional figures talking about domestic violence and sexual assault. So, while violence against women is not at all unique to the sports community, “what is unique is that they are organizations that are employers, they are organizations that involve everyone in the community, and they reach people in the community that domestic violence programs never would,” she said. Those “we not only would never reach but are traditionally the hardest people to reach — men, young men, kids.”

The impact of public awareness campaigns can be difficult to gauge, but Starr was able to recall a few moments that have stuck with her. One involved a young man, their top fundraiser last year, who candidly told her that he started raising money for the Coalition because the top prize was the chance to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game. In order to raise money, he started learning about the organization, gathering materials, “and he said all these people in his life started telling him that they had experienced domestic or sexual violence and simply [him] raising money for this broke that isolation for so many people.” The young man then formed his own team and every year hosts fundraising events where he can engage his friends, distribute materials, and encourage others in the community to get involved. “That’s how we see it have an impact,” Starr said.

The way the Mariners have chosen to prioritize their partnership with the Coalition not only supports the crucial work the organization does on a daily basis but helps the team put itself in the best position to deal with these very complex, and often very public, issues when they arise.

“I always say you know that eventually bad things are going to happen but that doesn’t mean as an organization you shouldn’t stand up and say that this is what we believe the right thing to do is,” Chard said.

And while no preventative or punitive action taken by a sports team or league, or any employer for that matter, can save it from having to deal with a player or employee involved in domestic or sexual violence, preparedness at the outset means the organization will be far better equipped to deal with the complex nature of the response. “The reality is of course we know, just statistically speaking, that there are people who are abusive in pretty much every workplace across the country and professional sports teams are certainly no exception,” Starr said. “But I do think when you are proactively public about it, when you are transparent about what your expectations are from the very beginning, when you take a stand against these things, it does create more of an environment of expectation.”

She continued, “I think the other important thing is to create a culture where people can get help and support, both if they’re concerned about the behaviors they’re doing and if they’re concerned about the things that are happening to them. Throwing people out isn’t necessarily a quick and easy solution for anyone — it doesn’t necessarily make people safer.”

The big tests for their new comprehensive approach are still to come, but Major League Baseball, the Players Association, and Futures Without Violence all emphasized that the initial spring training sessions and the additional measures being taken to raise awareness about violence against women and children, educate their personnel, and provide the necessary support services are all just the beginning. Moving forward, they will evaluate the feedback from the spring training sessions and reconvene later this spring to plot their strategy for continued education and engagement.

Down the road, MLB’s Halem said they hope their proactive, thoughtful approach can be an example to employers everywhere but before taking it public, it was critical for the league to start internally. “This shouldn’t just be an opportunity to make ourselves look good publicly by putting [out] PSAs or putting stuff on the scoreboard, but we actually should enact meaningful change in our organization and then we can certainly publicize that,” Halem said. For Fals and Futures Without Violence, they’ve done something the organization has long advocated and laid a critical foundation with a major professional sports league.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that these leagues need to get their house in order before they can actually go out to the public,” she said. “We’re all taking that first step very seriously. And that’s where we are — we’re at step one and it’s been a very good and solid first step.”

Top image: Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, a spokesperson for the team’s domestic violence prevention efforts, meets with youth baseball players at Safeco Field.