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MLB’s domestic violence policy both isn’t working, and is working perfectly

It’s time to face an uncomfortable truth about MLB’s fight against domestic violence

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Last year, after Jose Torres was suspended for 100 games for violating MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy, I asked for FanGraphs a difficult question: Is Major League Baseball’s Domestic Violence Policy Working? After all, I noted then that the Joint Policy didn’t seem to be fulfilling any of the five traditional roles of discipline: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution.

So there’s a real question to be asked regarding what the point of MLB’s domestic violence program is, because right now it doesn’t seem to have one. And there are no quick fixes here. A zero-tolerance ban for life could endanger victims, as [Cindy] Southworth points out. But there’s a flip side to that, which is that the wealth and opportunities facilitated by a major-league career probably aren’t best served to benefit domestic abusers, and unrepentant domestic abusers seem to create an even bigger problem. Perhaps larger fines, with the money being paid to domestic-violence charities, might represent a positive development. Changing the suspensions to mirror those of PEDs — so that offenders can’t play in the playoffs — could be another. If offenders were treated as harshly by writers as PED users, that would likely also serve to change the culture. In any case, the current policy doesn’t appear yet to have satisfied the basic requirements of an ideal punishment.

It’s now been a little over a year since I posed that question, and since then a staggering six more players have been suspended under the policy - more than in the previous two years combined. Yet even as punishments increase in length, they also increase in frequency: just last week, Felipe Vazquez was placed on an administrative suspension under the policy after being arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, and Domingo German was suspended for allegedly striking his girlfriend in public in front of witnesses.

Vazquez’s and German’s conduct, though by no means the same, both represent egregious actions - and their temporal proximity to each other is part of a disturbing trend. Put another way, five players were suspended under the policy across all of 2016 and 2017, with Hector Olivera’s 82-game ban being the longest. But across 2018 and 2019, eight players were suspended, including Torres’ 100-game ban, Odubel Herrera’s 85-game punishment, and Roberto Osuna receiving 75 games. As time has passed, suspensions have become harsher and more frequent, yet players continue to engage in punishable conduct at alarming rates. This suggests one of three possibilities, none of them good:

1) Major League Baseball players have engaged in domestic abuse at higher rates since the policy was enacted;

2) MLB Players have engaged in domestic violence at these rates for some time, but it was not noticed or punished until now;

3) MLB Players are being systematically framed for domestic violence offenses they didn’t commit.

We can dispatch of the third possibility fairly easily; the league has nothing to gain from disparaging its players in such a manner, and the MLBPA certainly wouldn’t be agreeing to suspensions if they believed the evidence against their members fabricated. So either MLB players have begun engaging in domestic abuse more frequently since the policy was enacted, or it wasn’t until 2018 that MLB began punishing domestic abuse in earnest. There is, unfortunately, no other alternative.

Frankly, either eventuality is very bad news. If players are engaging in misconduct at higher rates than before the policy, that means they simply aren’t deterred or dissuaded in any way by the penalties it offers. And if this isn’t new, it raises uncomfortable questions about just how deeply ingrained domestic and sexual abuse are in MLB’s player culture. It’s that second issue that perhaps is most concerning, and the two most recent incidents - German and Vazquez - are uniquely symptomatic of that potential problem. Take German, for example.

Although Klapisch’s report was subsequently disputed, the possibility that a player thought so little of the policy that he struck his girlfriend in front of a member of MLB’s executive team suggests that the deterrent and rehabilitative effects of the policy are minimal, at best. Notably, the union and team accepted an extension of German’s administrative suspension without argument or appeal - a step they don’t generally take - implicitly agreeing that his conduct was egregious enough to warrant foregoing such a stout defense.

But there’s a flip side to this problem also.

The parties to the Joint Policy evidently believe German’s policy was sufficiently severe to warrant indefinite suspension, but not so severe as to merit police involvement. That contradiction is, in and of itself, perhaps evidence of why the policy is, thus far, failing to have the impact we might expect.

First, although the policy does punish offenders for domestic violence and sexual abuse, the punishments remain, on the whole, rather less significant than punishments for other violations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. As Jay Jaffe wrote for FanGraphs earlier this week, and as I examined last week, players who violate the Joint Policy are generally eligible for postseason play, unlike violators of the performance-enhancing drug policy who are automatically disqualified from the playoffs. The result is that there are perverse incentives at work, as we saw with Roberto Osuna and Aroldis Chapman: violate the domestic abuse policy, lower your value, and get traded to a contender for a playoff run. If players aren’t deterred by the punishments meted out, you would expect more and more egregious conduct over time - like publicly striking a girlfriend, or like sexually assaulting a teenager. Similarly, multiple reports state that Felipe Vazquez knew that his victim was underage, and raped her anyway.

When confronted by police this week, Vázquez said he didn’t remember the girl’s name but acknowledged knowing her after seeing a photo, according to the complaint.

He told police the girl first messaged him on Instagram but said he initially “refused to communicate with her due to her age,” the complaint said. “The accused advised the Victim looked too young and that she appeared to be 16 years of age or younger,” according to the complaint.

Vázquez described the encounter to investigators as “sex but not really” because “he could not fit his penis entirely into the Victim’s vagina,” according to the complaint.

These are the actions of a person unafraid of criminal consequences. And why should he be? After all, as the German case demonstrated aptly, MLB won’t involve law enforcement, even in domestic abuse cases, where it thinks it can act unilaterally. Whether that’s out of apathy towards victims, a sense of self-preservation, or just mere hubris, the result is the same. At the end of the day, law enforcement isn’t involved in what is, in every state, some degree of unlawful conduct.

At the same time, however, none of this is surprising. Major League Baseball has, over the past two decades, a long and ignominous history of not reporting crimes or complying wth law enforcement. There was the Biogenesis investigation, in which MLB’s investigations department allegedly interfered with ongoing criminal investigations as part of its probe into the PED clinic, eventually culminating in a suspension of Alex Rodriguez and multiple MLB employees losing their jobs. There is the federal grand jury probe into the Los Angeles Dodgers, arising from MLB’s purported involvement in human trafficking and overseas corruption. There is former MLB employee Eddie Dominguez’s book about the league allegedly protecting employees from probes into human trafficking. More recently, the Los Angeles Angels were accused by the family of late pitcher Tyler Skaggs of employing the person who procured for Skaggs the drugs which caused his death. In short, the idea that MLB would purposefully avoid involving law enforcement in domestic violence matters is surprising to basically no one who has followed the recent history of the league at all.

Then there’s how MLB players are treated after returning from their suspensions. Take Addison Russell, who received a standing ovation during his rehab assignment after returning from a domestic violence suspension, before receiving fawning news coverage like this from Bob Nightengale:

“I thought this was going to be really hard for him but he’s been great,’’ says Carmelo Martinez, manager of the Cubs’ rookie team. “We start so early here, but he’s never complained once. I really admire how he’s helped these young kids.’’

Russell has spent the past month waking up each morning at 5:30, arriving to the ballpark by 6:30, playing games at 10:30, and returning back to his Scottsdale rental home where he and his girlfriend, Asti Kelley and their 5-month-old-son, Raynor, have been staying.

“I haven’t been this happy,’’ Russell tells USA TODAY Sports, “since I was ready to play baseball for the Oakland A’s. You go to the yard to kind of get away and play baseball. It’s kind of like hardball baseball. No scouting reports. You don’t even think. You just go out there and play. I wake up, see my family, and go and play baseball. It’s the best job in the world. You live your dream.”

Yes, the policy provides for suspensions without pay, a positive step. But the policy has a flip side, too. By leaving the discipline in the hands of MLB, a league notoriously secretive and infamous for its attempts to keep the skeletons in its closet out of view of law enforcement, players are, in a perverse way, receiving a kind of ally. MLB might suspend a player, but it can’t - and, as German’s case shows, won’t - put that player behind bars, and may actively work to prevent that outcome. It won’t keep that player from the postseason, and in fact will help to facilitate trades allowing the player to get there. It will continue to market the player. And the public will eat it up, with standing ovations and fawning profiles of family men. In that light, it’s not surprising at all that players like Vazquez and German would see just how far they can push that odious envelope. It’s only surprising, in the end, that it’s taken this long to fall this far.

There’s one more point we should make before this horse we’re beating can finally, mercifully, be declared dead. Of the fifteen (15) players investigated under the Joint Policy, thirteen (13) were suspended. Of those 15, just two (2) were white: Derek Norris and Steven Wright. Norris was a free agent, suspended a handful of games at the end of the season. Steven Wright was suspended 15 games after being arrested for domestic abuse. Every other person suspended under the policy was a person of color. All but one of them - Jeurys Familia - received suspensions of 20 games or longer. Familia, too, received 15 games.

It’s important here to note that whilst people of color - particularly women of color - generally are victims of domestic abuse at higher rates than white women, people of color are not more likely to be domestic abusers. Multiple studies have confirmed that people of color are not more likely to commit intimate partner violence, and in fact rates amongst white men and men of color are essentially equivalent. So why are men of color disproportionately being suspended under the policy?

Diana Moskovitz wrote about this brilliantly for Deadspin last year, after the Astros dealt for Osuna:

The Astros never had any morals; they just want to win baseball games. This makes them no better or worse than any other professional sports organization. But that’s not a narrative the baseball press can sell you—imagine hearing from a columnist that America’s pastime has nothing to do with morals and instead is just a billion-dollar enterprise with a questionable antitrust exemption that loves to exploit its workers as much as the next business. Instead baseball writers place their faith in MLB’s investigators and pretend they know what happened that day in May, both groups empowering each other so the status quo can remain: Men in power making up the rules as they go along.

MLB wants good public relations. What we have is the natural end result of a public relations campaign orchestrated and operated by an executive team that looks like this.

This, then, encapsulates the real impact that the Domestic Violence policy has had - and the lack thereof. Yes, the policy suspends - some - players for domestic abuse, and yes, offenders should be punished. But now, after a few years, we can fairly definitively state that to the extent the goal of the policy is to reduce the number and severity of incidents of sexual and domestic abuse, it has rather spectacularly failed. Because although it is sold to the public for that purpose, it is really just public relations: a way for the league to keep control over the narrative and keep its players out of prison when they do commit domestic abuse, with the limited axe that does fall targeting people of color. As an actual system of discipline for domestic violence, that really doesn’t work. As a public relations strategy, however, it’s working perfectly.