The severity of punishment athletes should receive for committing acts of domestic violence has unfortunately become a hot button issue in recent years. In 2014, the uptick in domestic violence cases in the NFL came to the forefront after an abhorrent video surfaced of Ray Rice violently striking his wife in a hotel elevator. Later that offseason, Adrian Peterson was accused of child abuse while Greg Hardy allegedly threw his wife on a bed of AK-47s. These disgusting and inexcusable acts were undeniably a problem for the NFL, but they also served as opportunity for the league to send a message that these acts would not be tolerated. Sadly, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell failed miserably to seize this opportunity. In the case of Ray Rice, the league originally suspended the Pro-bowl running back for just two games, despite having video evidence of his actions. Later that offseason, that video was released to the public and only in the midst of public outrage did Goodell make Rice’s suspension indefinite. Meanwhile the NFL reduced Greg Hardy’s suspension from ten games to just four, demonstrating not only a lack of consistency in handing down punishments, but also a complete disregard for just how traumatizing these heinous acts are for domestic abuse victims.
While the NFL’s failures in addressing domestic violence was unjust for the victims of these specific cases, these lenient punishments also have far-reaching cultural implications. For years, athletes have received preferential treatment by their respective leagues, our criminal justice system, as well as society at large. This lack of accountability has perpetuated a culture of toxic masculinity in which young men associate violence and sexual aggressiveness with masculinity. When kids admire professional athletes who have committed crimes, they absorb the notion that this type of behavior is acceptable. While a culture this ingrained and pervasive will not entirely be solved with harsher punishments for professional athletes who commit acts domestic violence, it sure would be a damn good place to start. For these reasons, I am particularly concerned about how the MLB has handled domestic violence cases over the past year.
When Aroldis Chapman was arrested past offseason for verbally abusing his wife and then unloading his handgun rounds in his garage shortly thereafter, the MLB was presented with an opportunity to set a hardline precedent that the NFL failed to set in years prior. But before the MLB had reached a conclusion on Chapman’s punishment, fellow Major Leaguer Jose Reyes was also arrested for domestic violence. The MLB now had a chance to not only establish a precedent, but also an opportunity to apply their punishments consistently. Unfortunately, the MLB failed on both counts. While Reyes was suspended for 80 games, Chapman received an abbreviated 30 game ban. A year later, on March 29, 2017, closer Jeurys Familia received a suspension of just 15 games, showing that the MLB does not take domestic violence allegations as seriously they should.
I do not mean to totally ridicule Major League Baseball for these rulings as I understand that there are obstacles to developing a totally consistent framework for these complex cases. I also do not claim to have any of the answers, because ultimately no matter how harshly the MLB punishes players for violating the Domestic Violence Policy, it inevitably will fall short of the violence that they have inflicted on their victims. With that said, I will address each of the problems the MLB currently faces and offer some solutions to a system that is still amendable its early stages.
Perhaps the biggest problem in creating a better system of punishment is that the facts of every case are different. For example, Chapman verbally threatened his wife and shot a gun off in his garage, but never directly inflicted violence on her. While these actions are reprehensible, I understand why the MLB decided to give him a lesser punishment than Jose Reyes, who according to court records, was guilty of repeatedly hitting his wife. It also makes sense that Familia was suspended for only half the number of games that Chapman as he was arrested with “reason to believe that domestic violence had occurred,” but has not yet been proven guilty of domestic abuse. While varying degrees of domestic abuse certainly deserve different punishments, the fact that the most extreme of these cases only resulted in a half-season suspension is still troubling, especially considering that players receive harsher punishments that for far less severe violations.
Since reports surfaced of Chapman’s domestic abuse, there have been eight different players who have been suspended 50 games are more for violating the MLB’s drug abuse policy. These players did not compromise the integrity of the game by cheating or using performance enhancing drugs. They did not endanger other civilians by driving drunk. They did not hit a woman. Instead, they were suspended for doing something that is legal in eleven states and decriminalized in 16 others. I am not advocating that all MLB players should be allowed to smoke weed, but rather showing how egregious it is that those who abuse their family members are punished less severely than those who recreationally smoke marijuana. While I do not have any solutions for a precise framework that tackles the problem of punishing domestic abusers, I do know is that if using recreational drugs warrants a 50 game suspension, then hitting your wife should at the very least result in a one year ban.
One claim often made in defense of lighter punishments for domestic abusers is the fact that by punishing the abuser without pay, the livelihood of the victim is also damaged as they are dependent upon the abuser’s income. While this is a compelling argument, it is by no means justification for more lenient punishments. The first problem with this logic is that it effectively excuses the abuser’s actions because they are a wealthy ballplayer. This not only fails to deter the abuser from inflicting future violence, it also creates a public image that this behavior will not be punished. As we have seen in the case of Familia, a woman’s financial dependency incentivizes them to not press charges against their husband. With all these considerations in mind, the MLB needs to create a fund for domestic violence victims that provides these families with the resources they need while the abuser serves his suspension. Realistically, there are only a few of these cases each year, so the creation of this fund would not be overly costly from the MLB’s perspective.
Major League Baseball is still in the early stages of dealing with domestic violence and as such there is still room for hope. Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to be active in other social arenas by devoting ample funds to the Boys & Girls Club of America, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and the RBI program. These moves show me that Manfred cares deeply about the MLB’s image and I truly believe that a forward thinking man like himself will address the issue of domestic violence in the near future. But speaking on behalf of every victim or potential victim of domestic abuse, these changes need to happen sooner rather than later.