This is the silly season. The time of year we contemplate Baseball, free from the whip-around of everyday play. So with the news of Jose Reyes’ arrest on Halloween, I find myself pondering something that isn’t silly at all: the violence visited upon women by men who play the game, and my trepidation at how that violence will be handled.
Violence occupies an odd place in baseball. Unlike football, where hard blows are understood as part of the vocabulary of the game, contact is marked as unusual in baseball. It’s the result of a heated moment or an errant throw, a late slide deemed by whatever standard to be dirty instead of gritty. For all the talk of the way the game has always been played, force in baseball often sits in isolation, readily available for dissection and scrutiny. Even those who justify throwing at a batter as necessary retribution do so knowing their rationale is predicated in part on how aberrant this call is. It's a rupture in the way the game proceeds. Traditional but not routine. Stripped of their novelty, those moments would risk baseball becoming a different sport, something unrecognizable.
Football invites contact, relishes the violent run. Many of the game’s most enduring highlights have played out within the context of torn ligaments; of hits that shake opponents; of the disconcerting wobble of men temporarily stripped of their memories. We guiltily rejoice in it, marveling at the impact between bodies even as we remember the great human cost it carries. Where baseball revels in precision, command, football is made up of mad flashes that invite us to find something stirring amidst the chaos. With violence inextricably linked to the action, we are appalled but somewhat unsurprised when the sideline becomes blurred and the targets become personal, defenseless, female. We wonder, perhaps rightly, how much the game itself is in part responsible for these incidents. We worry about the twisted romance formed by fame, power, traumatic brain injury, and unfiltered rage.
Football is understood to take a physical toll; getting wrecked is the modus operandi. Of course football is mired in these failings. Just look at it. We feel implicated by its harshness, unable to unsee the brutality on the field and imagine how it might translate to the pain of abuse. We hate Greg Hardy and Ray Rice for their crimes, but we also feel like accessories, or at least enablers. We don’t think of baseball in those terms. The game doesn’t seem to bear the same cloudy responsibility. It has always been put forth as civilized, gentile, a gentleman's pursuit. We’re able to separate ourselves from violence off the diamond by so rarely seeing it play out on the diamond. We can withdraw when the game is done, content to pretend that our heroes never harmed anyone. But the NFL’s very public foundering on issues of domestic violence inspired baseball to adopt a new policy of its own. And following his arrest for the assault of his wife in Maui, Reyes will be the first player potentially to face discipline under that policy. We're going to have to confront that area beyond the field. And it is probably going to suck.
Sports are often the site of politics. Saying that makes people uncomfortable, even angry. But for a game, the great plays of America’s pastime are often splashed against a backdrop of race, gender, labor, and power. We come to understand much of the world around us from the language we use to talk about sports. They offer an arena for contestation, a chance to talk about something even as we talk around it. As a church might, they operate as a place of coming together, where we throw murky problems into the specific relief of a play or a player, rather than a party or policy.
That process can nevertheless be uncomfortable; sometimes you just want to drink a beer and watch a game. It isn’t particularly fun to experience sports that way. It’s why we chafe at those moments when we can see the seams, when labor disputes or racially charged commentary abrade the shine of a well-struck home run and reveal the social constructs beneath it. For much of the game's history, our reaction to domestic violence was conditioned by the societal acceptance of it. This was how conflict was resolved, how power at home was asserted and replicated, and discussing it in public was untoward. We’ve arrived at a painfully fought cultural disdain for domestic violence, and now the seams of the game are being pried open, with the failures of the past peeking through to confront the possible failures of the future.
This was always coming. It was always coming because there are some men who hit women and some of those men play baseball for a league that has been completely bumfuzzled by how to mete out punishment for that abuse. It didn’t start with Reyes. Many a colossus has a history littered with domestic abuse. We try to navigate complicated relationships with beloved figures like Miguel Cabrera and all-time greats like Barry Bonds, by forgetting the chilling testimony or the 911 calls against them. Violence might not be part of the vocabulary of baseball, and its relative absence allowed us a false sense of moral superiority to other sports, but that perception was much more a function of the absence of a conversation about the sin than the absence of the sin itself.
In his story on Reyes for The New York Times, Billy Witz quoted Mets’ assistant general manager John Ricco saying of Rob Manfred and the players union, “I don’t think they can claim they were smarter than everyone else, but they didn’t sit around and wait…They got together and said, ‘We’re going to have something in place and we’re going to do it now and not wait for something to happen.’” Manfred is committing to something progressive, something bold and transparent, and something accountable. We’re in it now. Baseball is making a claim, seizing a moral authority absent from the bungled deliberations of other leagues and the courts. We’ll do it better than they did. We’ll get it right this time. And in the pit of my stomach, I fear they won’t, because they never have.
I worry. I worry about the subtle shifts in tone and tenor that indicate when a victim’s story isn’t being taken seriously. I fear conversations between fans punctuated with words and phrases like “livelihood” and “innocent until proven guilty” and "he-said, she-said," words that shift the assumption of honesty away from wives and girlfriends toward the men who hit them. I nervously await the results of the bizarre calculus that weighs these transgressions relative to drug use and other misdemeanors of similar ilk, and arrives at a consequence, a number of games and dollars lost. I fear the goal of the new policy is not to deter violence, but to receive credit for clearing the depressingly low bar set by other leagues. To appear to take a stand against the monsters, while failing to exorcize the specters haunting us. Relative to its own past, and the recent history of other leagues, I fear that baseball believes all it has to do is avoid letting a Greg Hardy linger. I worry what they’ve really committed to isn’t a policy of change but of doing just enough, while actually doing very little at all. I fear the League’s real concern is that I, as a woman who loves baseball, will stop watching baseball. I worry I’ll want to.
The seams of the game are being pried open, and I nervously await what we’ll find when they are. The stakes for the victims and their children are obviously much more real and terrifying than they are for me and mine. My ability to enjoy a game is inconsequential by comparison; none of this matters when measured on a scale of families rent into pieces by violence. But as observers and fans and women, we still wait with bated breath, conditioned to expect disappointment from years of the league abdicating responsibility, and from the recent failings of football. Not really equipped with the right lexicon to discuss violence on the field, and terrified that the legal and moral lexicon we have off it will prove unequal to the task. We wait and worry because that is what is left in this deep breath before the plunge. Because these are our stakes.
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This part was particularly poignant, I thought:
"Violence might not be part of the vocabulary of baseball, and its relative absence allowed us a false sense of moral superiority to other sports, but that perception was much more a function of the absence of a conversation about the sin than the absence of the sin itself."
It would be foolish to assume that because baseball doesn't offer a weekly buffet of glorified violence, it is somehow immune to larger, gnarlier societal ills. And yet, you're right, this is all too often the conclusion that consumers of the game might make. Patting ourselves on the back just for being "better than football" just doesn't cut it...
I fear that baseball, or any sport, has no hope of actually implementing a policy that will satisfy you Ms. Rowley. There will eventually come a case where the punishment the commissioner can hand down will pale when compared to the crime committed, but the player will not be punished by the legal system because of that stupid "burden of proof".
None of those penalties will be triggered for months or years, and the effectiveness of the justice system at assigning guilt is quite dubious (in effect, the system is designed to assign innocence as often as possible). So we are left with a dilemma - innocent until proven guilty is a great way to protect individuals from others who would seek to abuse the system, but it disproportionately favors the powerful and respected over the weak and unknown. Those who require protection find themselves fighting to receive it, rather than being granted it by default.
So how does this apply to baseball, and why should the league be involved at all? Well, the answer is basically that the major sports are, as the article says, charged with cultural responsibility that comes from their visibility. The virtues the sport trumpets and the vices it punishes must reflect the values of society, or the sport risks losing its place in the pantheon. The same is true for movies, TV, music, youtube channels, games, celebrities, and so on - to be mainstream, you must celebrate mainstream values and come down hard against transgressions. You do this not just to follow the trends to but to help reinforce the values that your fans believe in.
So, what should the standard be, and how do we punish transgressions? I don't know, honestly. Probably the best course is to create a system of punishment similar to the steroid abuse system - first code of conduct violation is a hefty suspension designed mostly as a public shaming, second violation is a year suspension, third is a lifetime ban. The standard of guilt should be "the preponderance of evidence" as opposed to "beyond the shadow of a doubt" - you are punished by the league if it seems more likely that you did it than that you didn't. If you look at how the ARod stuff played out, that seems like a reasonable model to me - the team is off the hook for payment while the player is suspended, but they are then saddled with any remaining contractual obligations to a player who has lost significant star appeal and marketing value, which gives them an incentive to help keep their players from breaking the code of conduct.
Just increasing the bloodlust on the punishment with articles like this, especially ones that don't even have the courage to recommend a suitable punishment, doesn't do anything useful though.
This article needed to actually take a stand. Making the enormous leap past due process and assuming guilt, what should the punishment be? What's enough? Until you tell us what your perceived correct answer is, this is just venting. It is too easy to just exclaim the punishment needs to be stiff, without a firm recommendation, and then to be unhappy with whatever the answer given is.
So yeah, this is just venting. Well-written venting, I'll grant you. But that is its sole and sufficient business purpose.
To figure it out, I think we need to ask ourselves what we want to gert out of MLB's response to domestic violence. Ultimately, it shouldn't be for MLB to mete out punishment when a crime has been committed by one of its players. They are subject to the same system of law as the rest of us, and ideally should face no more and no less retribution than an average person would. Part of the reason we demand that it does in these cases is that the legal system fails so often to adequately handle domestic violence, especially when the accused is rich,famous or powerful. Victims are threatened into silence or bought out, or the high bar of proof our system necessarily requires is not cleared. If our motivation is justice, then I think we shoulf look past the league and have a serious conversation about the failings of our legal system. I don't know how to solve the system's problems, but I can comfortably say that the solution has nothing to do with Rob Manfred.
To me, though, sports play an important role in how we define the rules of our culture, and there lies the league's responsibility to address domestic violence. Part of the reason many of us love baseball (or any other sport) is that it represents an attempt at an ideal. It is expected that players compete honestly within well defined rules, that merit alone determines success or failure, and that victory or defeat are accepted with grace and commeraderie. Whether this ideal is achieved is a different question, but an attempt is at least made to opperate the way we wish our broader society would. This gives the league considerable moral force in American society. It is what made baseball's segregation so immensely shameful and what makes its integration such a historic event in the national psyche. It's what made the steroid boom feel like a national crisis for many, even though the real stakes were so small. Now, I think, we as a society are just starting, painfully slowly, to turn a corner on the issue of how we deal with domestic violence. Even though they have failed often and badly in the role, we still look to the major sports leagues as leaders and as bellweathers in setting the direction of national debates on issues that touch them in some way. What we want from MLB, then, is an affirmation that domestic violence is taken seriously and deemed unacceptable. Of course, the outcome will be similar to what it would be if the goal were individual punishment, but the difference in intent changes both the standard necessary for action and the threshold of what suspension is necessary.
To make an adequate moral statement, the league's reaction must be swift and serious. Regarding the former, it is good that the league has reserved the right to act before the legal system is finished. The reasonable doubt standard is necessary in the legal system, where guilt or innocence are decided. If MLB's main interest is in making a moral statement, however, then a credible accusation and a preponderance of evidence should be enough.
Regarding the latter, I honestly don't know what a fair punishment would be. As the article points out, it's not something that can easily be weighed against a drug suspension. If the goal is punishing the accused for the full seriousness if their actions, then I have no idea what would suffice, and it might be that nothing within MLB's power is enough. The only thing I can say is that it has to be more. I suppose the exact ammount doesn't really matter, if you accept that the point is more about the moral statement than about specific punishment. It just has to be more serious than a run of the mill suspension for cheating. A season maybe, with lifetime bans for repeat offenders? It's hard to say what's enough and what's too much, but as long as the message is clear that this is serious, above and beyond the confines of the game, then the point is made.
All this places a burden on players. Whether the intent is to punish or simply to make a statement about the behaviour the player is accused of, the end result is that players will be open to sanction by their employer for actions unrelated to their work which happened off the clock, and with less requirement of proof than an ordinary person would face. There's precedent for that, when a major part of an employee's job is publiclyw representing
...publicly representing their employer. Part of the responsibility that comes with the wealth and fame of being an MLB player is representing baseball's values, and to me it's fair that serious breaches of those values carry sanctions. The flip side of that is that the league must be prepared to publicly apologize if an accusation for which a player has been suspended is proven false conclusively.
Anyways, thanks again for the excellent article, and sorry for the wall o' text.
This article is more about what we as fans have to come to grips with now that this issue, previously only prominent in other leagues, is right at our front doors now.
Meg, I imagine that if you were/are a Rockies fans these stakes would seem much higher, yes? They feel higher for this Rockies fan.
Of course men shouldn't beat women, or children, or people smaller than them, or people of a different color or faith or religion just because they can. And neither should we set up rigged system to railroad people.
If athletes made normal money no one would be writing articles about this. No one has set up a hue and cry about some factory worker pummeling his spouse. No, this article is all about exposure and which dog can bark the loudest.