This year, domestic violence became an issue Major League Baseball could no longer ignore. Officials observed the backlash the NFL faced over its bungling of the Ray Rice case and knew they weren’t prepared to face a similar incident.
The league enlisted the help of Futures Without Violence, a well established domestic violence awareness organization, and partnered with the MLB Players Association, the sport’s union, to craft a comprehensive policy encompassing domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse — establishing a procedure for disciplining players, mandating training, and providing services for athletes and victims. The policy, finalized in August, brought an element of clarity to what has long been a marginalized set of issues.
But finalizing a policy is only the first step in a larger process. Now, the league is faced with the much more daunting task of enforcing it — and slowly changing the permissive culture throughout baseball that has enabled numerous athletes to keep playing without recourse, no matter how serious the accusations against them may be.
In November, all of the talk about taking domestic violence seriously was jarred out of the hypothetical realm when reports surfaced that Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes had been arrested on domestic abuse charges while on vacation in Hawaii. His wife, Katherine, told the responding officer that Reyes “grabbed her off the bed and shoved her” and “grabbed her throat and shoved her into the sliding glass balcony door.” Reyes was released on bail.
And this week, Yahoo Sports reported that a potential trade between the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers involving closer Aroldis Chapman hit the rocks after information about a domestic dispute that took place at Chapman’s home on October 30 came to light. According to the police report, Chapman’s girlfriend said that he “choked” her following an argument and that she hid in the bushes while Chapman fired eight shots with a handgun from inside his garage. No arrests were made at the time and police said this week that the case had been closed due to “insufficient evidence.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero
The league was quick to respond; a spokesperson told ThinkProgress MLB “commenced an investigation in both cases immediately upon learning of the allegations.” (A third player, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, was reportedly under investigation as well for his role in an altercation at a Miami bar in November during which he allegedly pushed his sister, but was cleared this week to participate in an MLB-sponsored trip to Cuba.)
“The MLBPA and the Players take this issue very seriously and they worked very closely with the Commissioner’s Office and experts working in the area of domestic abuse issues to develop a thoughtful and comprehensive policy,” Greg Bouris, director of communications for the Players Association, said. The fact that the union and the league have cooperated from the outset sets baseball apart from the NFL. “Now it’s the responsibility of the parties to ensure that the policy and its due process provisions are followed.”
So, what happens next? The bulk of the disciplinary authority rests with Commissioner Rob Manfred. There is no maximum or minimum punishment, though any suspensions will come without pay. An arbitration panel will review any player challenges and a joint policy board will evaluate, recommend, and supervise players’ treatment. How long that might take is unclear: At the winter meetings in Nashville this week, Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre told reporters there was no timetable for decisions in the Reyes and Chapman cases.
“The Commissioner was granted significant power to discipline under the new policy, so the precedents he sets with these first few cases under the new policy are important,” Rachael Smith Fals, the vice president of Futures Without Violence, said via email. “His decisions will send a strong message.”
While the process has been established, arriving at a punishment is murkier. Particularly in a case like Chapman’s that did not result in official charges or an arrest, it’s hard to figure out what the league’s responsibility is. On the other hand, simply following the lead of the criminal justice system — which historically hasn’t been well equipped to deal with domestic violence cases — may not be the right solution, either.
Fals acknowledged that there are real challenges for “any sports league acting as judge and jury on complicated matters that they are not well trained on.” She added that her organization “strongly encourages the leagues to call on established experts in the field for counsel” when they’re dealing with domestic violence cases.
With a large swath of the baseball world gathered for the winter meetings, news of the Chapman allegations and derailed trade garnered significant attention. Dusty Baker, newly named manager of the Washington Nationals and Chapman’s former manager in Cincinnati, was asked about the news during a press conference, to which he responded that he hadn’t read the allegations but didn’t believe them nonetheless: “Who’s to say the allegations are true, number one? And who’s to say what you would have done or what caused the problem?”
As for MLB’s new policy, “I think it’s a great thing,” Baker said. “I mean, I got a buddy at home that’s being abused by his wife. So I think this policy needs to go further than the player. I think the policy should go to whoever’s involved. Sometimes abusers don’t always have pants on.”
Baker’s knee-jerk response perpetuates damaging stereotypes about domestic violence and clearly underscores the need for further education and training throughout the sport. Fals said she found Baker’s comments “outrageous,” and she wasn’t alone. The backlash to his remarks was so swift that by the time Baker got to his next interview, he had to offer a clarification of sorts, saying he did not condone domestic violence and hoped Chapman was innocent.
At the same time, however, the response to his comments is revealing — hinting that there may be a larger culture shift underway, and lower tolerance for people in positions of power who make offensive comments about domestic violence.
There may be lower tolerance for potential perpetrators, too. Several teams that might have been interested in Chapman, the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball, have recently changed their tune. The Red Sox reportedly backed away from a trade after learning about the incident through a background check. Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said on Saturday that the team’s interest in Chapman had “changed, obviously, with the allegations.”
This represents a significant departure from business as usual. Even the partial list of star players whose history of domestic violence allegations or charges barely constituted a blip on the radar is long. None were punished by the league and many, like Milton Bradley, went on to play for other teams and enjoy long careers. Even Barry Bonds, a lightning rod for criticism over his involvement in baseball’s steroid scandal and, as of this month, the Miami Marlins’ new hitting coach, is discussed with hardly a mention of past accusations of domestic violence — despite the fact that his ex-wife testified in their 1995 divorce trial that she was frequently beaten by Bonds, including while she was eight months pregnant.
But now, domestic violence accusations against a player are clearly something that the league, its teams, media, and fans can no longer ignore or dismiss as readily as they once did. It’s a shift that domestic violence prevention experts welcome: They say it may be the first step toward making this type of abuse culturally unacceptable, after decades of sports stars escaping any scrutiny for their behavior toward their female partners.
“Like it or not, MLB players, managers, owners, and executives are role models,” Fals said. “Their words and actions send strong messages to fans of all ages, and they have a responsibility to address these issues with care, concern for victims and their families, and a real commitment to helping those who use violence get the support and services they need to stop.”