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The shortcomings of MLB’s domestic violence policy

Until larger problems are addressed, players like Addison Russell receiving a second chance will always feel unjust.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

It would have been easy for the Cubs to nontender Addison Russell. From a purely baseball perspective, Russell has been a below-average player the past two seasons. He’s averaged 1.5 fWAR and hit for an 82 wRC+. He’s expected to make $4.3 million next year, and the Cubs are in a salary crunch. Better players were nontendered Friday. After Javier Báez’s breakout year, they don’t need Russell to play short. The Cubs have Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, and Ronald Torreyes as options to play second even after trading Tommy La Stella to the Angels.

It’s also easy to hang on to him. Just this month, Reuben Foster was cut by the 49ers for domestic abuse allegations, and within the week, Washington picked him up. Earlier this year, the Houston Astros traded for Roberto Osuna, who was still serving a 75-game suspension for domestic abuse. The Mets trotted out Jose Reyes day after day. Hell, the Cubs championship run was aided by their trading for Aroldis Chapman. If the Cubs had cut ties with Russell, they would have been breaking a pattern. Teams in all sports have given each other permission to employ domestic abusers.

The Cubs continuing to employ Russell hurts. After their trade for Chapman in 2016 and their trade for Daniel Murphy (who doubled-down on his homophobic comments from 2015 in his first press conference with the Cubs), it definitely feels as if the Cubs value winning over character, and that they’re fine with alienating women and members of the LGBTQIA community as long it helps them in the win-column.

Russell and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein released separate statements Friday that hit upon the common talking points. Russell, for his part, has sought out therapy not mandated by MLB. He claimed responsibility for his actions though he conveniently waited until it was financially advantageous to do so. He’s also promised to work with nonprofit groups, though he didn’t specify any by name.

In Epstein’s statement, he spoke of the changes the Cubs are making internally to address domestic violence prevention.

“We’re taking a hard look at how we can support domestic violence prevention. In our own workplace, we are dedicating more resources to expand training for our players, their families and our coaching staff and front office. We will engage the appropriate experts to help us design programs for the Cubs which raise awareness of domestic violence, help prevent future incidents and make us the safest workplace possible.”

Had the Cubs non-tendered Russell, it would have sent a message that domestic abuse is not to be tolerated. Of course, another team would have picked him up thereby canceling out that message. But even if the Cubs had moved on, and no other team picked him up, Russell would continue to live his life and have other partners. I don’t know what Russell’s chances of recidivism are, but if they’re in line with the greater population, they’d be likely to rise in that scenario.

Zero-tolerance policies don’t work because homicide rates and recidivism increase when they’re enforced. The linked study has also found that punitive measures are ineffective at preventing domestic violence. If an abuser suspects their partner will come forward with allegations, what’s to stop them from exhibiting more violence and control? They’re already going to lose everything. What’s to stop them from leveraging the victim’s fear into silence?

How can there be justice when monsters are given a second chance precisely because of how monstrous they are?

These two statements are at odds with each other:

1) Placing abusers in positions where they’re publicly lauded is damaging to survivors because it reinforces the intrinsic shame that comes with being victimized.

2) Removing abusers from their station is damaging to survivors because that makes the abuser more likely to retaliate.

In either situation, what a survivor hears is “This is your fault,” when nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing is going to change until MLB imposes sensible penalties, expands education, and steers the conversation in a way that recognizes and listens to survivors.

The above study doesn’t suggest punitive measures should be done away with entirely. Repercussions need to be in place, and that’s been the main focus of MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence policy.

The optics of Russell’s (and other’s) punishment matter to the public. 40-game suspensions are a step in the right direction. MLB took no action at all prior to 2015. But the suspensions only lessen the perceived severity when they’re less severe than other punishments that MLB administers. After serving a 75-game suspension, Osuna was eligible to pitch in the postseason, something that Robinson Cano was not eligible to do after serving a longer suspension for a PED violation, a nonviolent offense.

Punishment for the abuser is but one aspect of domestic violence prevention but it could be the least important. One reason why the suspensions never feel satisfactory is because they exist only to hurt the abuser. Former Editor of Beyond the Box Score Henry Druschel wrote last season:

“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.”

Part of MLB’s external education should include domestic violence being taken as seriously as using drugs to gain a competitive advantage. A larger part should focus on how it raises attention and helps prevent domestic violence among its players and in their communities.

Under the current policy, education and trainings for both employees and supervisors are in place, but they don’t appear to be mandatory. MLB should not only mandate domestic violence education, but it should be expanded as well. Teams should also monitor substance abuse and mental health. Access to therapy should be provided and strongly encouraged.

This sounds like what Epstein has promised. These are systems that should have been in place before Melisa Reidy and others suffered abuse at the hands of their partners, but hopefully they’ll prevent violence in the future.

If we can take the Cubs and Russell at their word, the correct measures are taking place, but the statements still feel hollow. MLB simply isn’t doing enough about domestic violence.

For MLB to adopt league-wide trainings for players and coaches to recognize signs of domestic abuse in themselves and others is good, but for the most part, players are reaching the professional level when they’re already adults. MLB can’t control what high schools and colleges are teaching their athletes about domestic violence, but that doesn’t mean MLB is powerless in that area.

Jen Mac Ramos wrote at the Hardball Times:

“Education is but one tool. Another, more powerful tool, is branding. MLB and other pro sports leagues are adept at building awareness for causes they trumpet… It would be fantastic if MLB could organize a campaign to talk about domestic violence, one involving players, and encourage teams to give a portion of their gate receipts on a specific day or days of the season to women’s shelters. Talking about domestic violence, bringing it more into the light, will help people better understand the sort of trauma victims go through, not just in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence, but for their entire lives.”

If the Cubs and MLB are serious about ending domestic violence, they will not only expand their internal education, but their external education as well. MLB can get entire baseball stadiums to stand and show the names of people affected by cancer, and they do this when they have the most eyes on them. They could do the same for survivors of abuse. Until then, every suspension will be nothing but posturing, every contract given to an abuser a tacit admission that baseball doesn’t care.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.