[Content warning: abuse, domestic violence]
Note: My day job is at an intimate partner abuse intervention program, and I have facilitated counseling and education groups for abusive men.
At the November 30 non-tender deadline, the Cubs did what seemed inevitable as that month dragged on: they tendered Addison Russell a contract for 2019. The shortstop’s abuse of his ex-partner, Melisa Reidy, resulted in a 40-game suspension that covered the final week and a half of the 2018 season and will continue into the early part of 2019.
Upon receipt of the contract offer, he immediately released a statement, his third since MLB opened an investigation in the summer of 2017; Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein released a concurrent statement. The player and the team focused on Russell’s participation in therapy outside of the league’s mandated treatment, the team’s expectations for Russell, and what Russell needs to do to “earn” the trust of the organization, his teammates, and Cubs fans.
All three of Russell’s statements have elided actual responsibility and accountability, however, and while the latest appears at first blush to be an improvement, it’s simply a more sophisticated evasion of responsibility. Russell opens with an apology to Reidy for his “past behavior.” This is a departure from his denial in September, when he called the allegations “completely false,” but it’s far from an admission of the harm he caused his ex-partner. In particular, Russell refuses to identify his behavior as abuse, one of the first steps in any abuse intervention.
He similarly avoids specificity in the second paragraph, where he asserts, “I am responsible for my actions,” without naming those actions. This is disappointing for several reasons: It minimizes the harm he has caused Reidy; it sets a laughably low bar for future statements from players who have been abusive or violent; and it suggests that Russell’s participation in both individual therapy and league-mandated treatment hasn’t changed the way Russell thinks about his actions.
Russell’s failure to label his actions as abusive is part of a wider, systemic failure that the Cubs and MLB show no indication of remedying: Survivors of abuse should be the foremost concern of the team and league in domestic-violence cases, but they are cast aside in favor of pivoting to the player’s own “growth,” often before that player has even completed treatment.
This is the same pattern we have seen in the entertainment industry, in politics, and in other highly visible fields: The primary concern of those in power clearly does not lay with the victims of abuse or assault. This is why Epstein, the Cubs, and MLB deserve none of the conditional praise that some have bestowed upon them; this is why their words ring hollow; this is why the de facto procedure in MLB domestic violence cases is a failure. The player and his team embark so quickly on the player’s redemption arc that the survivor of the abuse becomes an afterthought, and the punishment the player receives (usually in the form of a suspension without pay) becomes the only material consequence.
Russell and Epstein’s Statements
Let’s examine Russell and Epstein’s words more closely, then, because there are some portions of their statements that betray this pattern of thinking, working to assuage fans’ guilt while doing little to rectify the broken process.
Russell’s statement opens with a brief apology for his undefined actions, but he quickly moves onto inward reflection, and the Cubs support Russell in this aim. Read the following parts of Russell and Epstein’s statements, which are clearly meant to be considered in concert. First, Russell, with emphasis added:
I am complying with the MLB-MLBPA treatment plan, and I will be meeting regularly with different experts, counselors, and therapists. Even before any mandated treatment, I took the extra initiative of obtaining my own therapist and I have been meeting with that therapist several times a week for the last two months and plan to continue this therapy beyond the MLB treatment plan. With that therapy, I am attempting to improve myself by learning new outlooks and understanding different emotions.
And here is the concordant part of Epstein’s statement:
As Addison detailed in his statement, he has taken the initial steps to hold himself accountable for his past behavior and begin the rehabilitation process. He is working closely with his own therapist—help he proactively sought out beyond the league-mandated treatment—and plans to continue this work once the mandated program is completed. We are encouraged by his early effort and will continue to evaluate and verify his progress.
These are large portions of each statement, focused almost entirely on Russell’s individual therapy. We’re not privy to any information about the content of that therapy, and we know even less about the league-mandated treatment, so we’re forced to take Russell and Epstein at their word. We can assume that Russell is attending an intervention program as his league-mandated treatment because MLB works with those programs, but his failure to label his behavior as abuse indicates that he hasn’t learned much from his participation in that treatment so far. We are given more details about Russell’s individual therapy than we are about the mandated treatment, even though the latter is much more likely to challenge Russell on his abuse.
While the therapists Russell has been seeing could be trained to work with people who have been abusive, most therapists and mental-health professionals are simply not equipped with those tools. When they don’t have that experience, therapists can actually hinder an abuser’s progress by validating his negative thoughts about his partner, tacitly justifying his abuse. Russell’s privacy still deserves some consideration, so we cannot reasonably demand a detailed account of his therapy, but giving some indication of the focus of the therapy, beyond “learning new outlooks and understanding different emotions,” would be useful and encouraging information.
We only know that Russell is focusing inward, working to “gain new insights” into himself. This is, at best, a problematic framing of the work that Russell needs to be doing. One doesn’t need to have self-awareness or insight to choose not to be abusive. There are plenty of people who lack those qualities who do not abuse their partners. Likewise, there are plenty of people—especially people who have attended intervention programs—who do possess self-awareness and insight, and who can identify abusive behaviors, but continue to abuse their partners.
In some instances, abusers can weaponize the things they learn in their intervention programs and inflict greater or more sophisticated or subtle harm on their partners. If gaining insight is the benchmark by which the Cubs are evaluating and verifying Russell’s progress, as Epstein suggests in his statement, then they are failing in their obligation to Reidy, to survivors of abuse, and to anyone who hopes MLB and its teams will take steps to end domestic violence, all in the name of vaguely defined personal growth for Russell himself.
Recent History: More of the Same
This substitution of “insight” for accountability is a common thread in the abuse cases in MLB over the last few years, and not one player disciplined by the league has admitted that his behavior was abusive.
José Reyes said that he wanted to “apologize for everything that has happened,” refusing, by the use of passive voice, to position himself as the person making those things happen.
Jeurys Familia insisted that he “never physically touched, harmed, or threatened” his wife, despite his admission in a police report that he damaged a door and barricaded himself in a room. Those are common controlling behaviors for people with patterns of abuse that are often reactions to fear they have caused their partner.
Steven Wright, like Familia, stressed that he never physically harmed his wife. Reports suggested that the two attended couples’ counseling in the wake of Wright’s abuse, something that most intervention programs seriously discourage. As in Russell’s case, this focuses on Wright’s personality and character instead of the treatment he needs in order to end his abuse.
Roberto Osuna pleaded with fans, repeating that people “can just judge you, and they don’t know you,” hoping to stymie any challenges by hiding behind his unknowable character. This is in line with Russell and others’ focus on the abuser’s character, emotions, or insight, and a definitive first step in re-establishing the trust fans lose in the player.
Aroldis Chapman managed an even less committal statement than these, stating, “I want to be clear, I did not harm my girlfriend that evening. However, I should have exercised better judgment with respect to certain actions, and for that I am sorry.” Chapman had fired a gun in the presence of his girlfriend—not causing her physical harm, but surely instilling a great amount of fear—and reports also suggest that he strangled and shoved her.
Derek Norris issued no statement in the immediate wake of his 2017 suspension and, according to commissioner Rob Manfred, he denied any abuse. When asked last spring about the suspension, he said, “People are entitled to their opinions. … Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
These statements all indicate a refusal by the player to acknowledge the harm they caused their partners in the incidents for which they were suspended. The players are allowed to frame their actions as not only not abuse, but not even harmful or controlling behavior, and in each case the player resists any consideration of how their actions have affected their partner and, in some cases, their children.
Russell’s statement is a continuation of these themes, and the Cubs’ statement doesn’t challenge Russell to apply the things he is supposed to have learned in his league-mandated treatment. Each statement focuses on Russell learning more about himself, rather than focusing on identifying and stopping his abuse.
Shifting the Focus
Russell and the Cubs are already anticipating Russell’s return to the field. Repeating their desire for Russell to regain lost trust betrays the underlying thought that Russell’s reputation’s rehabilitation is paramount, and that the changes he makes in thoughts and actions, the actual choice not to be abusive, are secondary. Epstein can repeat that the Cubs are committed to ending domestic violence as many times as he would like, but if the player, team, and league are focused primarily on returning the player to the field with a clean conscience and cleaner reputation, then they are failing those they should be helping.
This pattern—denial, suspension, admission of “past behavior” without labeling or acknowledging effects, focus on individual treatment and personal growth, and anticipatory focus on regaining trust—shifts emphasis away from providing support and resources to survivors. MLB and the MLBPA need to break this pattern and implement a process that doesn’t allow players and teams to evade responsibility and accountability.
However, without fundamental changes in the structure of professional sports, teams and leagues have little incentive to significantly alter their relationship to survivors of abuse, and they have less incentive to make “baseball decisions” that run counter to their bottom line. We can’t expect a privately owned team to act morally. Ending gender segregation, eroding MLB’s antitrust exemption, or turning teams into municipally owned nonprofits could go a long way toward reducing incentives to harbor abusers. Without these changes, fans of professional sports will always be forced to live with the cognitive dissonance that comes with rooting for a team employing abusive players who were simply punished, rather than genuinely held accountable.
Short of these changes, what can MLB do to improve its response to players who have been abusive? Right now, the league simply opens an investigation, suspends the player without pay, and requires the player to do some nebulous form of treatment. The punishment that makes up most of MLB’s response to domestic violence should be only a small part of the process, if it’s to be a part of the process at all.
Domestic violence experts are of different minds about the value of an abuser losing their job, but, in general, partners and children are put at much greater risk when the abuser’s employment is impacted. With professional athletes, there are caveats—a player doesn’t lose the opportunity to work elsewhere if he is released or suspended; a player’s salary might insulate him (and his family) from the financial duress of losing his job; a player rarely faces legal consequences—but the risk is great enough to be skeptical of traditional employment action as a facet of treatment.
In order to move away from the punishment paradigm, MLB needs to encourage the sort of responsibility and accountability that players should be learning in their mandated treatment. There are a few ways they can do this:
- Refuse to lift a player’s suspension unless they admit their actions were abusive.
- Dictate the terms under which an organization with a suspended player must function, including the donation of that player’s forfeited salary to resources and services for survivors and treatment programs for perpetrators.
- Work closely with players and teams on the statements they issue, moving away from the evasions of responsibility outlined above, and ending language that anticipates the player’s redemption or regaining of trust.
- Publicly spell out the focus of a player’s treatment in clearer terms, eschewing “insight”-oriented individual therapy in favor of treatment that works to end abuse.
- Give survivors of abuse and their children any and all resources (counseling, financial compensation, shelter) that they need.
Some of these elements are easier to implement than others. Resources provided to survivors are the easiest and most direct for an organization with MLB’s vast financial advantages, and MLB should continue to work in this vein both to help survivors of abuse and to encourage survivors who need resources to come forward. Reidy waited until her divorce from Russell was finalized to publish a blog post near the end of last season, likely due to the possible consequences that earlier publication would have had for her family. Fortunately for MLB, this straightforward step is also perhaps the most important part of the process.
The other steps are designed to stop the cycle of denial, evasion, and premature redemption that has gripped MLB the past few years. There are important privacy issues to be considered for the safety of the survivor and their family, but the nature of statements and discourse coming from players and their teams must change in order to move away from punishment as the primary recourse in domestic violence cases. When players begin to take responsibility for their abuse, then the importance of suspensions will be lessened.
This is a lofty goal, and it will take time, but it’s necessary in order to do right by survivors. It will also help the fans upon whom the game depends feel more confident that, while the player they are rooting for did inflict harm, he has changed in meaningful, lasting ways that will result in concrete improvements in the lives of the people around them. Ultimately, though, whether or not a player regains the trust of their family, organization, or fans is immaterial. The principles that should guide MLB are those that place the safety and well-being of survivors first.
I am skeptical that MLB will take these steps, or similar ones that have the same goals. Nothing in professional baseball’s long history gives it the benefit of the doubt, as my colleague Mary Craig has noted. There’s a possibility that organized baseball will never overcome the harm done by gender segregation and the perpetuation of a masculine culture of violence that harms women and genderqueer participants. That history won’t transform into a better future if MLB doesn’t change its process regarding players like Russell and other perpetrators of abuse. If MLB doesn’t change, it will continue to send loud, clear, and often heartbreaking messages to those who would love the game.
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