Cubs shortstop Addison Russell

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DiCaro: What Should Cubs Do About Russell?

Transparency is crucial if the Cubs bring back Addison Russell.

Julie DiCaro
November 27, 2018 - 12:33 pm

(670 The Score) Following shortstop Addison Russell’s 40-game suspension without pay by MLB for violating the league’s joint domestic violence policy, it seemed doubtful the Cubs could even consider keeping Russell on the team.

After all, ex-wife Melisa Reidy’s blog post remains published online, in all its emotionally and psychologically abusive glory. And while the Cubs may not know it, they're still struggling to win back the goodwill of some fans who never forgave the franchise for trading for unrepentant accused abuser Aroldis Chapman in 2016. Toss in manager Joe Maddon’s inexplicably insensitive comments about the allegations against Russell, which president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was forced to walk back days later on Maddon’s behalf, and you have an emerging portrait of a team that doesn’t much care about the behavior of their players off the field.

With the deadline to tender a contract to Russell looming this Friday, it’s started sounding more and more like the Cubs are seriously considering keeping Russell in the organization. During the GM Meetings in San Diego, Epstein told reporters of his desire for the Cubs to be part of the solution to domestic violence in MLB.

"I also think part of the solution can possibly include rehabilitation and reformation," Epstein said. "And taking steps to examine whether the individual is worth the investment so he can grow so that this never happens again with him. So we’re in that process. We have a robust mental skills department. I don’t want to get into specifics, but we’re very engaged with Addy in trying to verify that he’s serious about self-improvement and adding more stability in his life to get to a point that we’re confident that something like this will never happen again."

That doesn’t sound like a team that's about to cut ties with a player over his off-field behavior. To his credit, Epstein is the lone voice within the Cubs who talks about domestic violence in a thoughtful and educated manner, and he’s to be commended for acknowledging that knowing a player in the clubhouse doesn't equate knowing them fully, rather than falling back on the decades-old trope of simply standing by the player, as so many front offices have done before him.

But Epstein and the Cubs are likely in over their heads if they think they can rehabilitate Russell and his image on their own, despite well-intentioned talks with Russell about his past behavior and adding more stability to his life. Of course, part of the suspension Russell negotiated with MLB includes psychological evaluation by a third-party expert, jointly hired by MLB and the MLB Players Association, to conduct an initial evaluation, develop a treatment plan for the player and then assume responsibility for overseeing the player’s compliance with the treatment plan, which includes identifying appropriate health care professionals in the player’s home city to provide counseling and intervention.

What’s less clear, however, is what kind of counseling Russell will undergo and whether that counseling is specifically tailored to address domestic violence on the abuser’s side. In recent years, the domestic violence community has advocated that abusers undergo a certified Batterer Intervention Program (BIP), which experts hope will have a higher efficacy rate than anger management, couples, substance abuse or mental health counseling, which have traditionally been where the justice system seeks to rehabilitate abusers. Unlike other forms of counseling, BIP is subject to state regulations, is monitored by the Illinois Department of Human Services and lasts at least 24 sessions as mandated by state law.

Whether Russell will be ordered into such a program is unknown. Despite repeated inquiries, MLB declined a request to disclose if any player has ever taken part in a BIP since the joint domestic violence policy was introduced, saying only that the expert who evaluates the player is free to set a "proper" course of treatment. MLB also wouldn't disclose how long players may be required to remain in counseling, but it takes time, said Michael Feinerman, programs director of the Center for Advancing Domestic Peace.

"Change takes time," Feinerman said. "We often find that the six months that a person is in our program is hardly enough time to begin this process, and research tells us that it may be a few years before new behavior is fully integrated. It's hard for us to believe that a three-to-six week series is likely to be effective in producing lasting or even immediate change."

There's reason to think the counseling some players have received has been ineffectual in the past. Following the completion of his 30-game suspension, evaluation and treatment in 2016, Chapman still bristled at mentions of allegations of his abuse, blaming his Latino ethnicity for having "loud" arguments and insisting he did nothing wrong. Like Chapman, Russell has continued to deny the allegations against him.

Accountability is among the most important factors in a counseling program that's effective in changing an abuser’s behavior.

"(Accountability) ...  doesn't just mean, "I did it and I'm sorry,'" Feinerman said. "It means acknowledging that that they have made a choice to use behavior that harmed someone, that they understand what harm they caused, are committed to deciding not to use behavior in the future that does harm and to do all that they can to remedy the harm they have caused and to make the survivor whole."

It’s also difficult to treat abusers in one-on-one counseling sessions, Feinerman said.

"If I'm working with someone individually, I can only deal with the reality they're presenting," Feinerman said. "But if I'm working with them in group, I can see their behavior. If they're cutting off the woman co-facilitator and they never do that to me, I can reasonably speculate that they're doing that with their partner as well. Often, even before a co-facilitator can say something about that, one of the more senior members of the group will address it. Addressing behavior in real time has a lot of advantages over trying to elicit descriptions of that behavior in individual sessions."

Because of their hectic travel schedules, it’s much more likely that MLB players' counseling sessions will consist of individual sessions, often over the phone.

Given all this, it’s difficult to imagine that the deal negotiated between Russell and MLB will effectively address the issues of emotional, financial, physical and psychological abuse described in Reidy’s blog post. And while there has never been an official adjudication of Russell’s guilt in criminal court, both MLB and the Cubs have proceeded as if there was significant merit to Reidy’s allegations.

So is there a way for Russell to remain with the organization in a way that doesn’t risk alienating fans, especially women, all over again?

The blueprint for it looks something like this, I think.

Russell speaks to the media in person (not via a written statement) and takes responsibility for his past actions in a way that doesn’t open him up to criminal liability. Saying "I made a lot of mistakes in my marriage for which I am profoundly sorry" should be at the same time vague and significant enough. Russell then details for the media and the fan base what steps he's taking -- above and beyond those ordered by MLB -- to address his behavior. Additional long-term counseling, a donation to a local domestic violence shelter and involvement with organizations that seek to prevent domestic violence seem like a good place to start. The Cubs are free to put any additional restrictions and requirements on Russell and should detail for the fan base what those are.

If the Cubs are serious about being part of the solution when it comes to domestic violence, it starts with both accountability and transparency to the general public. After the trade for Chapman in 2016 and after Russell’s suspension (and Maddon’s flippant comments on the same topic), Epstein has insisted the organization takes domestic violence seriously. If that’s the case, it’s long past time for the team to demonstrate how seriously. Simply refusing to discuss in-house matters in the name of privacy concerns isn’t enough. The fans, especially the hordes of young men who have taken the Cubs’ silence as a tacit approval of Russell’s innocence, deserve to know exactly what the conditions are for Russell potentially remaining in the organization.

Anything less renders the Cubs just another organization that talks a good game when it comes to domestic violence but fails to holder their players or their organization truly accountable.

Julie DiCaro is a former attorney for domestic violence victims and abusers and a current host at 670 The Score, including on the "Julie & Maggie Show," which can be heard Saturdays on 670 The Score. Follow her on Twitter @JulieDiCaro.​​