For the first time, Major League Baseball has a policy allowing it to suspend players who commit domestic violence, whether or not they are convicted in criminal court, a policy that the NFL shares. Since December, two players have been punished under the new policy: pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired a gun at their home, and shortstop Jose Reyes, who allegedly grabbed his wife by the throat and threw her into a window. Neither was charged with a crime—Chapman wasn’t arrested, while Reyes’s wife refused to cooperate with the investigation—but both were suspended, Chapman for 30 games and Reyes for 52.
On the one hand, this policy is a vital step forward for baseball in its treatment of women (see below for why I think so). On the other hand, the existence of a formal policy heightens a question that seemingly all sports fans have to consider at one time or another: what should our relationship as fans be to players who commit terrible crimes? Before Reyes and Chapman there were Albert Belle and Barry Bonds, Francisco Rodriguez and Josh Lueke, as well plenty of violence against women in other sports (Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice, Kobe Bryant), and that’s not even considering those who committed violence generally (Ray Lewis, Matt Bush, Hope Solo). When sports leagues simply ignored these cases, the sense of hopelessness led to a muted reaction even from fans who abhorred the players’ continued careers. Now, though, as players are beginning to receive (admittedly light) punishments in their sports, fans have more to think about regarding our stances towards such players—especially when those players are on our teams. And of course, both Chapman and Reyes had new major league teams waiting for them when their suspensions were over.
There have been two great pieces on this question recently—one by Mets blogger Maggie Wiggin, expressing her dismay with Reyes joining the Mets, and one by Giants blogger Grant Brisbee, expressing his desire that the Giants not trade for Chapman. Building off of their work, here are some questions I want to explore regarding the appropriate reaction when players commit violence, especially violence against women:
1. Should sports leagues punish infractions even when the law does not?
This one seems really easy to me. Yes, of course sports leagues should take action against players who harm the league, regardless of whether indictments and convictions are handed down. If your grandparents are still alive, this principle is probably older than they are.
In 1921, the “Black Sox”—the eight White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series—were acquitted in Chicago of criminal conspiracy to defraud. Although the trial was marred by irregularities and it seemed impossible that a Chicago jury would convict Chicago baseball heroes, the acquittal meant that, in the eyes of the law, the players were utterly blameless. The next day, however, the first Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, made it clear that this would have no effect on the consequences baseball meted out to the players:
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
Whatever you think of the merits of a lifetime ban, Landis’s dismissal of the jury’s verdict is entirely appropriate. The justice system hands down legal penalties for legal wrongs; Landis was handing down a baseball penalty for baseball wrongs. Had the trial revealed that the eight players did not do what they were accused of, Landis might not have banned them; it didn’t, and he did. In that respect, the two systems are totally independent of each other.
Infractions don’t even have to be against the law to merit discipline from the league. In 1996, baseball banned Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott from managing her team’s baseball operations, because she had made repeated racist and anti-Semitic comments. These comments were not against the law, but they badly hurt the league’s image, so they drummed her out of the league. Or look at it on a team level: failing to hustle on a ground ball isn’t against the rules of baseball, let alone against the law, but it can get a player benched or fined by the team. What kind of sense would it make to say that an act which is illegal is out of the league’s ability to punish?
So, does violence against women hurt the league and therefore warrant its punishment? Another easy one: yes, of course. Does baseball want people talking about domestic violence, or does it want people talking about baseball? Do leagues want fewer women and girls as fans, or more? Does a team want players that make the team look like a bunch of enablers, or does it want players that the fanbase can rally behind, buy their jerseys, etc.?
If you commit a crime, you may face legal consequences, you may face professional consequences, you may face personal consequences. That some of those consequences don’t accrue to a particular case doesn’t mean the others shouldn’t, either.
2. So, what should those consequences be?
This is a trickier one. When the suspensions of Chapman (30 games) and Reyes (52 games) were announced, a lot of people found those punishments much too lenient. In particular, people complained that apparently baseball finds betting on a ballgame or taking performance-enhancing drugs to be worse than choking a woman. I share the anger at the lenient suspensions, particularly Chapman’s; I don’t know what the appropriate length is but 1-2 months seems far too light. But I think the comparison to the suspensions for gambling or PEDs misses an important point. Punishing gambling or PEDs more harshly than domestic violence doesn’t mean that baseball considers them worse sins overall; it means that baseball considers them more harmful to baseball.
To use an admittedly strained analogy, if an employee is convicted of a crime that might be embarrassing to the company—drunk driving, say—they might get fired. If they’re guilty of a crime that directly harms the company—embezzlement or some kind of fraud, leaking secrets, etc.—the company will not only fire them but will likely sue to recover damages. Is that a judgment by the company that leaking company secrets, a crime that may cost some folks some money, is worse than drunk driving, a crime that can actually kill people? No: the judgment isn’t that leaking secrets is worse in absolute terms, it’s that it’s worse for the company. Or, reasoning the other way, you might end a friendship with someone who betrayed you while breaking no laws, while maintaining a friendship with someone who committed a felony (wire fraud, say) that didn’t harm you or make it impossible for you to associate with them. That’s not inconsistent or hypocritical; it’s consistent with the idea that punishments within a sphere are based on the harm done to that sphere.
Similarly, baseball’s judgment is that gambling and PEDs hurt the sport more directly than violence against women does. The argument, I imagine, would be that violence hurts the reputation of the sport and its players, whereas gambling and PEDs hurt the competition itself, which is the foundation of the sport’s existence. You can agree or disagree with that—I personally agree when it comes to gambling but disagree when it comes to PEDs—but it isn’t an inconsistent viewpoint.
The good news is that those who are dissatisfied with the punishments of Reyes or Chapman are, just by expressing their justified anger, setting the standard that the punishments should be more serious. The more fans refuse to tolerate violence and its light punishments, the more that violence hurts the game, and the more strictly baseball will punish it.
3. When, if ever, should a team sign a player who has served this sort of suspension?
This is the hardest one of all, at least for me. No matter how long the official punishment is, if no teams sign a player guilty of violence against women, then it becomes a de facto lifetime ban. Is that what we want?
If your answer is yes, I don’t agree, but I won’t kick. The truth is this is a question that has bedeviled liberals for a long time: what is the proper liberal approach to violence against less powerful groups?
The defense of the disadvantaged is a central liberal value, and it has defined the liberal approach to both criminal justice (an emphasis on due process and leniency for accused and convicted criminals, who in the liberal view are frequently disadvantaged) and to social justice (zero tolerance for discrimination against people based on characteristics like race or gender). What makes violence against women (along with racial hate crimes and the like) such a sticky wicket for the left is that it brings these tenets into conflict. Liberal criminal justice, aware that those accused of violent crimes are usually poor and disenfranchised (and sometimes innocent), would suggest a formidable standard of proof for conviction, lenient sentencing and parole, and ample rehabilitation opportunities; liberal social justice, aware that the criminal justice system has long had an abysmal record of defending women’s bodily autonomy, would suggest a lower standard of proof including deference to the accuser, and strong legal and societal penalties for those convicted. (These are obviously simplistic statements—prison abolitionists would certainly consider themselves social justice activists—but I think people can recognize the broad trends I’m talking about.)
So, when it comes to players who commit violence against women, the question doesn’t end when their official punishment is up; one still has to decide whether they can be rehabilitated into their sport. This is something we have to take a clear stance on, I think. Saying that Reyes, or athletes who have committed similar crimes, should be eligible to play but not with one’s own team, is a manifestation of the “not in my backyard” problem. I don’t think it resolves the problem to say, “Some team is going to sign him, I just don’t want it to be mine.” If your ideal is that no team sign the player, then that’s tantamount to saying you would prefer he be exiled from the game. Again, that’s a valid stance, but one should be open about it.
So, some would say that such a player should never represent the sport again; this seems to be Wiggin’s view, as she says she can’t cheer for such a player, “Not now, and not ever.” Others would argue that once the official punishment is up, the player has paid his dues and can be signed with no more qualms than any other. I would split the baby (or split the defense) here. I think redemption is possible, and with redemption should come a chance to participate in one’s chosen field—but personal redemption must precede athletic redemption. Before a player is signed to a team, he should show unambiguously that he atones for his actions, that he has changed, and that he is making restitution to those he directly and indirectly harmed.
This is a very different model of “redemption” than the one cynically trotted out on these occasions. When teams sign these players, they often try to justify themselves by saying that the athletes deserve a shot at redemption. However, “redemption” is absolutely independent of the question of being admitted back onto a team, because the team isn’t the victim. If the athlete screwed up as an athlete—showing up to a game drunk or out of shape, for instance—he can redeem himself on the field; if he screwed up as a human being, his redemption must happen within himself and with respect to the people he harmed. He doesn’t have to be wearing a uniform to be redeemed on that level. If he comes back and wins MVP, he is no more redeemed than if he comes back and fails miserably.
So teams should insist on redemption, on true change, partly because the team doesn’t want the risk of recidivism, but partly because the team shouldn’t want what Brisbee calls “a goblin” representing them, and even less a goblin hypocritically pretending remorse. The problem, as Brisbee points out, is that determining redemption is difficult even for counselors and clerics, let alone sports teams:
Even if you believe in redemption and second chances, you can’t read the police report without coming to the conclusion that Chapman is a very, very damaged individual. It’s possible that he’s utterly remorseful and consciously working on his anger management. It has to be impossible, though, for the Giants to judge that. What are they going to do, look him in the eye and ask?
This is a good question, and to answer it I think we should look at the one athlete, as far as I can tell, who successfully redeemed himself after committing a crime that threatened his career: Michael Vick, who committed violence not against women but against the pitbulls in his dogfighting operation. (I don’t think I’m being too cynical when I say it’s no coincidence that the hammer fell hardest on an athlete who abused dogs rather than women; that violence against women is wrong still manages to be controversial in our society.) Vick, unlike the other athletes I’ve mentioned actually served jail time, after pleading guilty to the charges against him. With his guilt beyond dispute, without the fear that being forthright would expose him to more criminal penalties, he was free to apologize publicly for what he did, pledge to never do it again, and to donate his time, money, and image to the Humane Society’s anti-cruelty campaign. This may meet your standard for redemption or it may not, but the point is, what he did is what anyone should do who wants back on a team after committing a wrong.
The problem is that Vick’s redemption, if that’s what it is, was only possible because he went to jail. Other athletes, who remain legally free, are paradoxically not free to come clean like this. And so you have Reyes making mealy-mouthed statements like “I made one mistake,” or Kobe Bryant, in his apology to his victim, maintaining that he thought the sex was consensual. I don’t necessarily think that redemption requires jail time per se—I’m enough of a prison skeptic to be uncomfortable with that conclusion—but it does at minimum require an honest reckoning, a significant change in one’s life like intensive counseling or rehab. Until then, no, I don’t want Reyes or Chapman on my team, or any team. A man facing down his demons, coming to grips with the diseased version of masculinity that controls him, and emerging to help prevent other women from being victimized—that’s a story I’m willing to be inspired by. It has nothing to do with whether he can still hit a curveball.