Cubs shortstop Addison Russell

Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

DiCaro: MLB Got Russell Case (Mostly) Right

MLB was patient in waiting for Melisa Reidy-Russell to be ready to talk.

Julie DiCaro
October 04, 2018 - 12:25 pm
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(670 The Score) When it comes to investigating and punishing players for domestic violence, Major League Baseball stands head and shoulders above the other three major professional sports leagues.

It’s a low bar, of course. The NFL set a baseline suspension of six games for players who commit domestic violence, yet only four players have received a suspension of six games or more since the policy was enacted in 2014. That’s counting the "redo" on the Josh Brown suspension, which was initially set at just one game despite a trove of evidence detailing years of domestic abuse, some of it in Brown’s own words.

The NBA has suspended far more players over the course of the last five years for substance abuse than for domestic violence. And the NHL, well, they don’t even have a policy on domestic violence, despite high-profile cases against players like Slava Voynov and Semyon Varlamov in recent years.

So when it comes to handling allegations of domestic violence against players, MLB wins by default, in the sense that it at least attempts to handle the allegations via an actual investigation. To its credit, MLB’s domestic violence investigations team is comprised largely of former law enforcement officers with a background in domestic violence cases, including former police officers and prosecutors.

It’s through this lens that we discuss MLB’s decision to suspend Cubs shortstop Addison Russell for 40 games for violating the league’s joint domestic violence policy, a decision handed down Wednesday. When it comes to suspensions, Russell’s falls right in the middle of what MLB has doled out so far: Jose Torres and Hector Olivera received lengthier suspensions (100 and 82 games, respectively), while Aroldis Chapman received a 30-game suspension. Jeurys Familia and Stephen Wright each were suspended for 15 games.

Two factors in the Russell suspension make it noteworthy. First, unlike other cases, MLB had a cooperative victim in Russell’s ex-wife, Melisa Reidy-Russell, and they were willing to wait for her to be ready to talk. Domestic violence allegations against Russell first landed on MLB’s radar back in June 2017, when a friend of Reidy-Russell's accused Russell of physical abuse in an Instagram comment. At that time, MLB contacted Reidy-Russell, who told them she wasn't emotionally prepared to talk about her relationship with her husband, as she was going through a divorce. If this had been the NFL, the investigation would've likely ended there, due to an "uncooperative witness," just as the league shut down the investigation of Brown, blaming his one-game suspensions on wife Molly Brown’s refusal to talk to the league.

But MLB was willing to wait for Reidy-Russell, and it kept the investigation into Russell open for more than a year. When she was finally ready to share the details of her relationship with the league, MLB was ready for her and moved quickly to suspend Russell. It was an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and the psyche of the victim not often seen in professional sports leagues. Only MLB knows for sure if this is the first time a victim has aided in its investigation of a player, but its willingness to allow the alleged victim to dictate the pace of the investigation is admirable and should be echoed by other leagues.

Secondly, while we don’t know what "additional credible evidence" that MLB was privy to in this matter, it seems to be the first time the league has suspended a player for a pattern of behavior, rather than a specific incident. In her interview with WGN, Reidy-Russell stated that she shared texts and pictures with MLB investigators. However, unlike other cases in which players were suspended for domestic abuse, Russell’s suspension didn’t come about because of an arrest or police report. Rather, MLB seems to have found Reidy-Russell’s version of a longstanding history of physical, emotional and verbal abuse to be credible enough to hand down a 40-game suspension.

While the difference in suspending a player for abuse over a period of years rather than a single incident may seem like a no-brainer, it’s an important step forward in the way MLB investigates and talks about these cases. Often times, domestic violence victims are unable to put a time stamp on allegations of abuse. While the victim may be able to recite detailed accounts of abusive episodes, times and dates may be fuzzier, especially when abuse has been taking place for a number of years. In choosing to look at evidence beyond police reports and hospital records, MLB has signaled to its fan base that victims’ accounts of their abuse will also be viewed as credible, despite cries of "he said, she said" from some fans.

MLB still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing domestic violence by its players. For starters, it would be nice to see a player get a longer suspension for beating up his significant other than for performance-enhancing drug abuse. To date, only two players have received domestic violence suspensions longer than the first-offense 80-game PED policy penalty. And while MLB also requires players suspended for domestic violence to be evaluated by the Joint Board on Domestic Violence and referred to treatment, it’s not known exactly what "counseling" and "treatment" mean. Certainly, it’s difficult to judge the efficacy of any treatment plan when a player like Chapman, who completed his prescribed counseling, still denies he committed abuse.

It’s unrealistic for fans to expect baseball to cure its players of the propensity toward domestic violence. Spousal abuse is no more prevalent in MLB than in any other industry, as research has shown time and time again that domestic abuse occurs across racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups. So, many fans have asked, why should MLB investigate domestic violence at all? Why not leave it to law enforcement?

There are good reasons.

Pro athletes who commit violence against their significant others are at a distinct advantage in that they often get to keep the jobs and that their reputations are fanatically defended by fans online and in real life, even after allegations of abuse are public. They're rarely subjected to criminal prosecution. On the rare occasion when criminal charges are filed, players can hire the best lawyers money can buy, who are often able to massage prosecutors into dropping the case. Managers and teammates often throw the weight of their support -- and implicitly the team's -- behind the abuser, assuring fans of his "good guy" status in the clubhouse.

Baseball has an obligation to care about the well-being of their players' partners. For many MLB organizations, players’ wives and girlfriends function as team ambassadors, hosting charity events and being repeatedly pushed forward in fan-facing events. It would be unfair and unethical for MLB to reap the benefits of the family-friendly narrative while at the same time ignoring the abuse of these same women at the hands of their employees, by say, refusing to read a woman’s detailed claim of abuse.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who always seems to strike the right note when talking about domestic violence, said Wednesday that, "Domestic violence is everyone’s problem, so we can all find a way to be part of the solution." While Epstein seemed sincere in his earnestness, baseball teams aren’t set up to provide the kind of support that domestic violence victims (and abusers) need. At least not yet.

Fans have learned to expect the bare minimum from MLB and its teams when allegations of violence are involved, which is entirely fair based on professional sports' shaky history of caring about what their players do off the playing field. But at least in this case, MLB seems to have taken a couple of big steps forward, despite still having a long way to go.

Julie DiCaro is the co-host of the "Julie & Maggie Show," which can be heard Saturdays on 670 The Score. Follow her on Twitter @JulieDiCaro.​​