The Problem With Focusing On Major League Baseball’s First Domestic Violence Punishment

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File

This week, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman became the first player punished under MLB's new domestic violence policy.

Major League Baseball was widely praised this week after handing down its first official punishment under a sweeping new domestic violence policy that promises to take a different approach to crimes committed against women. But as sports leagues increasingly feel the pressure to make a meaningful difference on this complex set of issues, focusing on the punishment doesn’t capture the full picture.

Just a few months after baseball’s new policy was finalized last year, it faced its first major test as three players were placed under investigation for domestic violence. Outside observers wondered whether the league’s next actions would live up to its stated commitment to take domestic violence seriously.

From the outside, things appear to be on the right track. Last week, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced he was placing Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes on paid leave while he awaits trial for domestic abuse. And on Tuesday, the league suspended New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman for 30 games without pay for his involvement in a domestic dispute last October.

Charges weren’t pressed in Chapman’s case, though his girlfriend told police he “choked” her and she hid in the bushes while he fired eight rounds from a handgun in their garage. Chapman repeatedly maintained his innocence and vowed publicly to appeal any suspension, but both he and the MLB Player’s Association, the sport’s union, accepted Manfred’s decision.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Chapman emphasized that he was only apologizing for his actions with the firearm: “I want this to be clear — I’m apologizing because the use of the gun. It was bad judgment on my part. But I also want to say that I never hurt my girlfriend… I’m taking this punishment because of my bad judgment. [It’s] something that I definitely want to put behind me and move on.”

The reaction to the punishment has been largely positive — clearly, avoiding a drawn-out appeals process while simultaneously sending the message that, regardless of the justice system, MLB is no longer turning a blind eye to this sort of conduct is a good first step — but it’s been focused on just that: the punishment.

Establishing a meaningful, systemic approach to both addressing and preventing crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault can’t be measured in games missed or dollars lost, said Rachel Smith Fals, vice president of Futures Without Violence, a well-established domestic violence awareness organization that advised MLB and the union last year.

Fals received numerous requests to comment on the suspension and whether it was fair. And while she acknowledged that the number of games does send a message, she wanted to see the conversation around MLB’s response turn to a broader set of questions: “What else are you doing aside from punishing?” she said. “Where does the program stand in terms of education the players are getting; with respect to outreach to victims and their families, what are the services and support that are being put into place for those who abuse but also those who are victimized?”

Officials within baseball were clear last year that their focus was long-term — they intended to work in concert with the union and outside experts to not only establish a transparent procedure for punishing and treating players, but also to change the entire culture toward violence against women and children throughout the sport. And, advocates emphasize, the second part is critical to achieving any sort of appreciable progress on these issues.

"You're not going to change the culture in 60 to 90 minutes, once a year," Fals said.

Paul Mifsud, MLB's deputy general counsel for labor relations, said the league is well aware of the challenge and commitment required. "It doesn’t happen overnight," he said. "You have to build programs around it and then you have to convince the stakeholder that it’s the right thing to do. It’s a process and we’re doing pretty well in that process."

This year every major league club will once again participate in informational sessions, hosted by the Players Association, during Spring Training. "The purpose of each meeting is to continue to help inform the players about the issue of domestic violence, discuss the sport’s new policy, the resources available to players and their significant others, discuss ways players can help others (as bystanders) they think might be subjected to DV as well as using their voices as celebrities to help raise awareness of an issue that, unfortunately, is a societal issue and knows no boundaries," Greg Bouris, communications director for the union, said via email.

Bouris added that the union is "committed to these efforts," while at the same time, it remains "committed to protecting and ensuring the rights granted to players under the applicable provisions of the new policy."

Negotiating the policy with the union is an important strength, Fals noted — and a key distinction between MLB and the NFL — because it allows the league to move forward with its own punishment outside of whatever legal processes the player may face. (In the case of Reyes, Manfred cited a provision in the policy that allows the Commissioner to suspend a player with pay until the resolution of criminal or legal proceedings if allowing them to play "would result in substantial and irreparable harm" to either the club or the league.)

Beyond punishment, the policy also contains specific steps for treatment and intervention once the league becomes aware of a credible allegation against a player. While the confidentiality provisions in the policy preclude the league or the union from discussing the specifics of this process as it pertains to Chapman or Reyes, Mifsud said MLB has taken care to keep the disciplinary and treatment-based aspects separate: "You want to encourage the player to be forthright and get treatment without the threat of penalty and we actually have done that."

Looking forward, Mifsud said the hope is to implement a series of education and awareness programs that would continue through the season and in the offseason. To help facilitate that, the league hired Ricardhy Grandoit, who formerly oversaw the gender-based violence prevention program at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, to serve as its first social responsibility specialist. In his new role, Grandoit is working with individual clubs, minor league players, front office personnel, and the commissioner's office to help develop and institutionalize violence prevention programs.

Other support services established by the policy include a 24-hour hotline for major and minor league players, in English and Spanish, staffed by professionals, and local resources made available to spouses and families. And Mifsud said they're even working on building further support into an app for players' phones.

There's certainly still work to be done, however. Fals said she'd like to see "a real independent investigation, an outside investigator doing their job and bringing you the evidence for both parties involved," rather than the in-house investigators MLB is using to examine cases now. And one only need look as far as recent comments made by Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker and Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz defending the players accused of domestic violence — and in Baker's case, blaming the victim — to realize what a challenge cultural change will be.

But Fals said she's encouraged by what she's seen so far. "Based on our relationship and conversations with them, I do feel like they’re honoring the spirit of the policy with respect to getting experts in house and really approaching it in a very thoughtful way, and I mean that for both sides, so I’m glad to see that," she said.