He's no Roger Goodell. We hope.

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MLB's Domestic Violence Policy Might Just Get It Right

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Major League Baseball has a sweeping new policy for disciplining players involved in investigations of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. It was collectively bargained with the MLB Players Association and signals a significant shift from the past quarter century, when the league failed to punish a single player for violence against women despite numerous incidents.

While it's promising that MLB is set on taking such behavior much more seriously, hoping to avoid the kind of outcry we saw against the NFL last year, the effectiveness of the new policy heavily relies on the hope that Commissioner Rob Manfred can avoid turning into his NFL counterpart, Roger Goodell.

The policy places nearly all punishment power in Manfred's hands, and a guilty verdict or plea isn't required for the commissioner to act. Manfred can place a player on paid administrative leave for up to seven days while investigating -- a marked improvement from the NFL's practice of putting players on the Commissioner's Exempt List for however long Goodell sees fit. Still, much like the NFL's "new" personal conduct policy, the latest MLB domestic violence policy is a lot like the old one. It doesn't actually create any new disciplinary power for the commissioner, who already had the authority to punish such offenses under the "Just Clause" and "Conduct Detrimental or Prejudicial to Baseball" sections of the collective bargaining agreement. It simply attaches a specific name for these crimes.

Manfred seems sincere about tackling these issues, even if for no other reason than to avoid NFL-level scrutiny. But the new policy casts a wide net for the commissioner to consider discipline. There are no minimum or maximum penalties, so it's up to him to decide on an appropriate number of games to suspend a player on a case-by-case basis. That creates the potential for the kind of arbitrary, fly-by-night discipline we see and loathe in the NFL. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the policy: "Prior precedent and past practice of disciplining players for engaging in an act of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse may not be relied upon by a player to support a challenge to the severity of his discipline, but that all other disciplinary past practice and precedent will remain relevant." In other words, a player can't use the fact that the league has not punished previous domestic violence cases to challenge his punishment, but he can appeal based on punishment handed down for other offenses. So it's anybody's guess how harsh any domestic violence punishment will be compared to other infractions, such as drug use or hate speech. That places a lot of faith in Manfred's ability to gauge both the relative severity of domestic violence crimes as well as relative public sentiment. The first few cases will be uncharted territory, and it'll be interesting to see just how long it takes Manfred to "get it right."

That said, MLB's policy has one very important distinction from the NFL's: checks and balances. Whereas Goodell has the power to act as his own arbitrator, Manfred will have to defer to a three-person arbitration panel consisting of a player representative, a league representative and a neutral third party. Baseball's disciplinary challenges thus won't descend into the farce we see in football, where the words "appeal" and "independent investigator" have no meaning.

That's a testament to the baseball union's power compared to the meek NFL Players Association, which collectively agreed to give Goodell unchecked power. But the MLBPA is also showing extraordinary confidence that Manfred will be fair-minded and consistent in agreeing to such an open-ended policy. We're talking about the most powerful union in American sports, arguably in the entire the country, one that won't even budge on fully banning smokeless tobacco, telling the commissioner that it trusts him not to abuse his power. That's a sign of truly healthy labor relations in the sport, and probably that both sides agree it's important to take domestic violence seriously. Mostly, it shows how much other leagues want you to know that they're not the NFL.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net