Baseball's Defensible Position on Domestic Violence
Major League Baseball took a major step toward fighting domestic violence in sports Tuesday, suspending newly acquired New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman for 30 games. But is it enough? Is it fair?
The unpaid suspension is the first under the league's new domestic violence policy and the second disciplinary action taken against an accused player. Last Wednesday, MLB put Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes on paid leave pending the investigation into charges that he assaulted his wife in Hawaii last fall. After that inquiry, Commissioner Rob Manfred will decide whether to take further action against Reyes. Chapman is accused of choking his girlfriend in October and firing a gun in his garage.
With his decision on Chapman, Manfred has set a new tone for how the league responds to violent acts against women. In the past, they were all but ignored. So is it fair? It's certainly much harsher than the punishment received by players in the past who were accused of similar acts. A 30-game suspension for Chapman raises a bar that was previously at sea level.
Is it enough? Compared to the automatic 80 games handed out for a first-time performance-enhancing-drug violation, it sends a signal about which allegations the league finds more troubling. But then we're getting into the tired debate over whether leagues should care more about protecting the "integrity" of the game instead of policing their players off the field.
The obvious comparison is to other leagues -- namely, the National Football League, which launched the sports world into a wholesale review of its treatment of domestic violence with its inadequate punishment of Ray Rice after he knocked out his fiancee. The outrage that ensued after Rice was suspended for just two games -- 12.5 percent of the 16-game NFL season -- probably won't be nearly matched in the reaction to Chapman's 30 games -- about 18.5 percent of the 162-game MLB season.
On the one hand, comparing the proportion of Chapman's suspension to Rice's isn't exactly apples to apples, as Chapman wasn't charged. (Manfred did say that the use of a gun contributed to the severity of the punishment, and given the failures of the criminal justice system, both MLB and the NFL have said that neither a charge nor a conviction is necessary for league discipline.) And if you understandably think Chapman should miss more time, note that Manfred specifically wanted to find a number of games that would hold up to a potential appeal -- after watching NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lose multiple appeals, including Rice's appeal of his after-the-fact indefinite suspension.
Also note that MLB's union is the strongest in the country, wielding far more power than the NFL's, which is overall for the better and something of which Manfred is fully aware. Chapman won't be appealing his suspension, as sources tell the New York Times the decision was reached after negotiations between the league and Chapman's camp, including the MLB Players Association. "The MLBPA supports Mr. Chapman's decision to forgo his right to an appeal," the union said in a press release.
The reasoning is clear: 30 games was enough to make the league look serious while still allowing Chapman to earn enough service time this year to become a free agent at the end of the season. As I wrote when the Yankees traded for him, a long enough suspension would have delayed Chapman's free-agent eligibility a full season, until the end of 2017. Six full seasons on an active roster are required to become a free agent. MLB counts one season as 172 days, although there are usually 183 calendar days in a regular season (162 games plus 21 off-days). Chapman would have had to sit out 46 games to miss free agency after this season.
Chapman will lose $1.7 million in salary during his suspension, and the Yankees lose their closer for more than a month. He'll be eligible to return on May 9. But the suspension doesn't reward the Yankees for picking up a troubled player the rest of the league wouldn't touch for obvious reasons. They'll get a lot out of him for the remainder of the season once he returns, but they won't get another year of control without negotiating a new, presumably more lucrative, contract.
Given the league's history on domestic violence, this is an important step and a good sign MLB is serious about the issue. Chapman gets punished, but so do the Yankees. Hopefully, a team will think twice the next time it might see a cynical benefit in buying low on an embattled player -- as if the Dallas Cowboys' tumultuous season with Greg Hardy didn't provide enough of a cautionary tale.
MLB still has work to do, starting with its decision on Reyes. The Chapman suspension suggests the league might finally be up to the task.
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