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MLB needs to broaden its responses to domestic violence and abuse

MLB’s only responses to recent DV incidents have been to do nothing, or to punish the offender. Those don’t do enough to help victims or society as a whole.

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San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Justice, unlike baseball, is not a game. In baseball, there are two sides, exactly and only. There’s one winner and one loser, with no overlap, no sharing, no ties, and no partial victories. And in baseball, there is no ambiguity about what’s good for a team, because if you lose, I win, and vice versa. Your failure to score runs is good for me, because it’s bad for you. I want whatever you don’t want, and if you want something, I don’t want it.

Justice isn’t like that. The interested parties in the justice system are manifold: there are victims, and offenders, and the innocent accused, and the families of everyone involved, and the people like you and me who are unaware of how we’re touched by the operation of justice in a specific case yet are impacted nonetheless. Those manifold parties also face a huge range of possible outcomes beyond a simple win/loss binary. And most importantly, those parties are not necessarily diametrically opposed. The fact that one actor in a given situation is being hurt does not automatically help the others.

Despite those differences, we tend to talk about justice as if it’s a contest or sporting event. The victim and the offender are placed in opposition to each other, excluding all others from the scope of inquiry. Hoping for the best for one party is viewed as equivalent to hoping for the worst for the other. And the converse is accepted as well: To help one, we hurt the other.

The result of that mindset is a shift in focus for the justice system that has drastic and far-reaching effects. The question we should be asking: “How can we make as many people as possible ‘win,’ and as much as possible?” The question we end up asking: “How can we make the bad side lose?” In baseball, those might be equivalent, but in justice, they are not.

This flawed mindset is not unique to MLB, but it is readily apparent in the league’s approach to player misconduct, particularly when it comes to domestic violence and abuse. MLB is currently governed by the policy announced in August of 2015, and while the disciplinary aspects are prominent, the educational and remedial aspects have drawn much less focus.

The linked-to article says that “players will be provided education about domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in both English and Spanish,” but I suspect not many players have taken up MLB’s offer, given that it is seemingly nonmandatory. There has been no large-scale initiative to raise awareness and funding for prevention or treatment of victims, nor any program to make baseball more friendly to women generally.

Announcement aside, it’s not clear that the league has done anything to help. Instead, MLB’s domestic violence policy has been entirely focused on punishment for the individual player; it seeks to hurt the offender, as if that is enough to help the victim.

Consider the case of José Reyes. Reyes was the subject of a league investigation after his wife called police and reported that he grabbed her by the throat and pushed her into a door. He was eventually suspended for a hefty 51 games, and lost over $7 million in foregone salary as a result. Reyes was also required to make a donation to an anti-domestic violence charity... of $100,000. And what happened to his foregone salary? With nothing in the CBA or domestic violence policy requiring otherwise, that money stayed in the Rockies’ coffers, to be spent as the team saw fit, and almost assuredly not on abuse treatment and prevention. I’m sure the beneficiary of Reyes’s donation appreciated the money, but MLB could afford to do much, much more, and has chosen not to.

But perhaps the league isn’t fully to blame. It is shaped by the preferences of us fans, and apparently our preference when it comes to domestic violence is not for sustained impact and assistance to victims, but for punishment of offenders.

For example, Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News wrote an article after Reyes’s suspension that featured this passage:

[W]hile Reyes’ case — and that of Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman before him [suspended for 30 games] — should serve as an example of how seriously MLB is taking domestic violence, the league instead sent the message that threatening violence and putting your hands on another human being is less serious than testing positive for a performance enhancing drug.

It’s the wrong message. It should be at least 81 games.

And this article, featuring domestic violence experts discussing MLB’s policy more broadly, spoke at length about how to calibrate suspensions to the right length for a given situation. It devoted no space or thought to the education, therapy, and funding that MLB could do.

A growing number of people agree that the league needs to take domestic violence seriously, and that’s good. The problem is that, in the eyes of almost everyone, the way for MLB to “take it seriously” is to punish it harshly. That’s not enough.

As the experts in the above article said, a zero-tolerance approach to domestic violence is misguided and dangerous. Our attempts to hurt offenders often result in collateral damage to victims, thanks to the intertwined relationships that often exist in situations of domestic violence, and the increased risks of escalated harm and non-reporting that accompany harsher sanctions.

But the problem with MLB’s approach to DV is not just the possibility of harm to victims. The rigidity displayed by the league in formulating responses to violence and abuse means that punishment of offenders is pursued to the exclusion of all other options. The sorts of actions that can bring about actual enduring change and good — for victims, potential future victims, and everyone who is touched by domestic violence — are almost entirely ignored. We are all worse off as a result.

Chicago Cubs v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Consider, for example, the reports from last week that Derek Norris is accused of abusing his ex-fiancée, and that Addison Russell is accused of abusing his wife. Many people want MLB to take the allegations seriously and do something in response to both situations. They’re correct to do so.

Frustratingly, if we treat justice as a game, and think hurting offenders is the only response to such allegations, nothing can be done until and unless those allegations become something more concrete. The MLBPA would protest vociferously if MLB fined, suspended, or blacklisted either player on the basis of uncorroborated reports alone. For many well-documented reasons, domestic abuse is under-reported, which makes development of allegations in any situation unlikely. The result is limbo: justified anger, disgust, and outrage while MLB is seemingly unable to take action.

But that limbo exists only because our conception of action is so limited. The league, or the Rays/Cubs respectively, cannot take punitive actions without more evidence. But they could start diverting resources to shelters and other support organizations immediately. They could begin education of players throughout their franchises tomorrow, or improve the mental health and substance abuse resources available to those players. They could organize events for the families of players, and invest in support networks available for them directly, independent of their husbands and fathers. They could devote their considerable clout toward lobbying Congress and state governments for greater funding and resources toward prevention and treatment of DV and abuse for ordinary people, who don’t have the resources of a professional baseball player. The CBA and U.S. criminal law correctly prevent teams and the state from hurting accused persons based on allegations alone. But nothing is preventing them from helping alleged victims.

And every organization could do any of those things, not just those facing public allegations of abuse toward one of their players! Every organization could start tomorrow. Even if not a single baseball player abused anyone; even if not a single player was accused of any sort of misconduct. Baseball is a massive part of American society, deeply woven into the fabric of our day-to-day life. We can, and must, demand proactive steps against domestic violence from the league, not simply discrete instances of player punishment.

This is not an issue that’s unique to baseball. The focus on punishment, without caring whether that punishment is actually helping anyone, is endemic in the American system of criminal justice. The impulse to do something in response to wrongdoing, and a belief that “something” is inherently limited to hurting offenders, is what has yielded MLB’s current domestic violence policy. It is also the cause of a 500 percent increase in the prison population over the last four decades, a one-in-three chance that a black man will spend time incarcerated during his life, and an imprisonment rate in America higher than that of any other country. What that impulse has not done is help communities or victims.

MLB, like the criminal justice system, needs to broaden its focus to include positive impacts. Suspensions and fines successfully hurt offenders, but MLB’s policies fall drastically short when it comes to helping anyone. That is the metric on which they must be judged.

Starting immediately, MLB must consider what it can do to help alleviate the impacts of domestic violence and abuse, both inside and outside baseball. Victims should absolutely be the first priority, but the system cannot disregard future potential victims, and even the offenders themselves. What Reyes did, and what Chapman did, and what countless other people have done, is horrific and cruel, and cannot be ignored. But as lawyer and anti-death penalty activist Bryan Stevenson wrote, “Each of is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We must care enough about victims and families and potential future victims — and yes, offenders too — to ask not just how we can hurt, but how we can help.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.