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Emily: An Inescapable Truth

May 10, 2018

 

Over 20% of Canadian women have experienced abuse at the hands of a romantic partner. That’s one out of every five of your closest female friends, colleagues, or acquaintances - women who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by someone who is supposed to love and care about them. And those are just reported cases – experts say the real number is likely higher.

 

While I’m not among them, and therefore can’t speak from experience, I have close friends who have been abused, or witnessed their friends and family members join that 20%. The response to those women was a private one, focused on supporting them and getting them the help they needed. None of them ever saw a courtroom. Each of their cases are unique, but there is one thing they have in common: their abusers weren’t famous.

 

Nobody was rushing to defend their abusers online, saying they have to reserve judgement until the facts are in, or talking about how the men involved had to “overcome this adversity”. When an abuser is well-known, public conversation is all about him, whatever discipline he’ll face (if any), and how it will affect his career. It’s easy to pretend to be detached in such cases, to condemn or ignore them.

 

But, what’s the proper way to react when that man plays for the team you love and watch every day? What do you do when it’s someone you don’t know, but had looked up to – whether for his openness about anxiety, or his rags-to-riches story after growing up in poverty in Mexico? What happens when you’re forced to acknowledge that athletes are human, and therefore they’re capable of doing horrible things to other people? Now it’s landed at our door, and there is no ignoring it. Early on Tuesday, Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays’ closer, was arrested in Toronto for assaulting a woman, believed to be his girlfriend.

 

It’s hard to talk about this, emotionally. It’s hard to say “Get him out of the league” without sounding like we just want him out of sight, out of mind. It’s also hard to say that without considering if that’s what’s best for the victim (and it may not be, as NFL player Josh Brown’s ex-wife Molly asked the league not to ban him in 2015, fearing it would increase his anger and violence towards her). Unemployment is a risk factor for an increase in domestic violence, and most victims of spousal abuse cite financial control as a reason they can’t just leave the relationship. A loss of income for an abuser may make things worse for his family.

 

It’s hard to say “Make him attend counselling, then give him a second chance” without sounding like we think counselling magically fixes everything, and like his saves matter more than his partner’s safety. If he were a fringe player, would we even be having this discussion? I’m inclined to think not.

 

It should also be hard to say “innocent until proven guilty” without remembering that only 30% of spousal violence gets reported to police, and fewer go to trial. Lack of a conviction doesn’t mean that nothing happened.

 

In 2015, partly in response to criticism the NFL has faced about its inconsistency with punishing athletes accused of domestic violence, MLB announced its Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault policy. The policy, created in cooperation with the MLB Player’s Association, is detailed at this link, but basically it means that the Commissioner’s Office will independently investigate all players allegedly involved in sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence. It doesn’t matter if charges are filed in the case, or a player is convicted by a court. Before, it was up to the individual teams to decide a player’s punishment. As part of the policy, players and staff are also required to attend training sessions about domestic violence and sexual assault each year.

 

Depending on the findings of the investigation, a player may be punished. There is no minimum or maximum penalty (i.e. length of suspension), but players may also be “required to submit to psychological evaluations, attend counseling sessions, comply with court orders (including child support orders), relocate from a home shared with his partner, limit his interactions with his partner, relinquish all weapons, and other reasonable directives designed to promote the safety of the player's partner, children, or victims”.

 

On October 31st, 2015, Jose Reyes was arrested in Hawaii for assaulting his wife. Reyes is a former Blue Jay; he is currently a Met, and was with the Rockies at the time of his arrest. From my small segment of the Blue Jays community, I saw shock, disappointment and anger. A lot of people just said, “Fuck him”. 

 

A few, myself included, felt a little relieved. To be clear, this was not relief that he wasn’t my problem anymore. This was relief that I didn’t have to worry about the team I love so much letting me down. I didn’t have to suddenly reckon with the fact that the Jays might care more about their on-field success than violence their players perpetrated off of it. I didn’t have to face an ugly answer, because that question – What are you going to do about this? – had been posed to someone else.

 

Reyes was the first player disciplined under the new policy, and was suspended 51 days. After completing his suspension, he was immediately designated for assignment by the Rockies, and the Mets signed him to a minor-league deal.

 

In December of 2015, before the Reyes investigation was finished, pitcher Aroldis Chapman was arrested. At the time, the Reds had being shopping him to other teams. After the Dodgers backed out of trade talks, many fans were outraged at the Yankees for swooping in to acquire him as damaged goods, then trading him midseason to the Cubs, and re-signing him to a five-year contract that offseason. Chapman was only suspended 30 days, partly because a longer suspension would have reduced his service time and pushed back his free agency - basically rewarding the team who traded for him in the first place.

 

Four more players have been suspended under the policy since then: Braves outfielder Hector Olivera in April 2016; Mets closer Jeurys Familia, following an arrest in November of 2016; catcher Derek Norris in September 2017, for an unspecified incident from 2015; and Red Sox reliever Steven Wright, at the beginning of this season. All those incidents happened during the offseason, with suspensions beginning at the start of the next season or soon after.

 

Familia and Wright were both given 15-game suspensions, with Wright still serving his. Norris was a free agent at the time, but was placed on the restricted list for the rest of the year. Olivera was given the longest suspension so far, at 82 games. He was also the only one to be convicted in court, although MLB suspended him before the verdict. Charges against Reyes, Chapman and Familia were dismissed due to lack of cooperation or evidence, and Wright’s case was ‘retired’. Osuna is scheduled to appear in court in June 18th.

 

For now, the commissioner’s office has placed Osuna on administrative leave during its own investigation. Leave is paid, and seven days to start, but it can be extended. The Blue Jays have already cancelled a giveaway of 15,000 Osuna shirts for Thursday’s game, replacing them with shirts featuring Yangervis Solarte. That’s an appropriate first step. They also pulled all Osuna-related merchandise from the gift shop.

 

The organization said they won’t comment further on Osuna’s arrest, since it’s an active police investigation. But when the investigation concludes, the Blue Jays will have a choice to make. They will either keep him, demote him, release him, or trade him. They have to do something. They can’t just pretend he never existed, or that this never happened.

 

Of the players who’ve been suspended, four are still employed. Reyes was dropped from one team before being welcomed to another. Chapman is in the second year of that 5-year, $72M deal. Familia is still with the Mets. Wright is still serving his suspension, but who knows what the Red Sox will do when he returns.

 

Olivera was traded to the Padres before his suspension ended, but then designated for assignment and released once he was eligible to play again. Norris was signed by the Tigers last winter, but released at the end of Spring Training. Both of them landed in independent ball. Hopefully, the Blue Jays won’t just act as though a suspension is the final say on the matter. Preventing abuse is an ongoing process, and one that needs to be taken seriously by the fans as well as the league.  

 

If the Blue Jays choose to keep Osuna, and you feel uncomfortable supporting a player who’s been accused of domestic violence, may I suggest what one Cubs fan did when her team acquired Chapman in 2016: donating $10 to the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic in Chicago every time he recorded a save. Other fans chose to support similar organizations, or donated a smaller amount per strikeout. (You can find a list of relevant charities in Toronto at the bottom of this article.)

 

The fact is domestic violence has been an ongoing issue in baseball for decades. It’s only recently that a formal policy has been put in place to do something about it. Athletes are no different from the rest of the population. Maybe living in the public eye means they get tried in the court of public opinion, but they get a lot of support and forgiveness (deserved or not) from the public as well. 

 

For example, when Reyes was arrested, I had a Twitter user tell me that his wife was an “ungrateful bitch” and “should have just enjoyed the vacation”. This guy wasn’t denying that it happened; he was telling me that even if it had happened, it didn’t matter, and it was probably her fault.

 

In 2016, I went to the Blue Jays’ home opener with my roommates. We were in the third row of the 500 level, above right field, and quickly realized everyone nearby, especially the large group in front of us, were very intoxicated and rowdy. It was a little annoying, but we were mostly able to ignore them. That is, until late in the game when Troy Tulowitzki was hitting. One of the louder, drunker dudes in the front row started shouting “Jo-se Rey-es” over the “Let’s Go Blue Jays (clap clap clap-clap-clap)” chant.

 

I was confused at first, thinking he was comparing Tulowitzki’s performance to the player he’d been traded for. Then he clarified by chanting “beat that bitch up”, and next added “Arold-is Chap-man”, and repeated Reyes’ name a few more times. Apparently, Tulo’s at-bat was a coincidence, and this guy was amusing himself by chanting the names of domestic abusers.

 

I felt sick to my stomach, but didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and I didn’t have the number for Dome security (for future reference, it’s 647-503-4131 and they accept both texts and calls). I wish one of his buddies had told him off. It turned a fun, albeit disappointing game into a situation where I felt not only uncomfortable, but unsafe. I can only hope nobody else in our section overheard.

 

Speaking of things that make me uncomfortable, why do players who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs get longer suspensions than almost anyone accused of domestic violence? The going rate is 80 games for a first-time PED offense, with a full season for the second and a lifetime ban for the third. Does that mean that MLB considers the damage steroids cause the game more significant than damage caused to another human being?

 

Players suspended for steroids also aren’t eligible to play in the post-season, impacting their career as well as their team. Not only did Chapman pitch in the playoffs, he got to win a World Series. He was traded to a contender because he was eligible. He lost just a month’s worth of salary, but still got a lucrative deal at the end. At the amount these players make, is that really much of a consequence?

 

Since the news about Osuna broke, I’ve had a number of online strangers say I “don’t know everything that happened” all the way up to “Proving again, men don’t count. Shoot first, ask questions later”. As though even hinting that I believed the woman made for some kind of male oppression. In a rush to withhold judgement about Osuna’s guilt, people have overcorrected to accusing the woman instead. “Maybe she’s just lying” is not a neutral statement.

 

I never claimed to know all the facts. I doubt we, as the public, ever will. But do I need more ‘evidence’ to say that domestic assault is wrong? Or that I don’t personally feel comfortable supporting someone who’d do such a thing? It’s a harsh reminder: we might be familiar with his work, but we don’t actually know him as a person.

 

No matter what team Osuna plays for, or what kind of career he has, this is something that we can’t afford to forget about. We can’t just sweep it under the rug because he’s talented, or because he plays for a team we happen to like. Neither of those things makes him more deserving of redemption. If the team attempts to gloss over it, we should call them out. Don’t blame it on his mental illness. Don’t try to link it to his nationality (trust me, people already have). Don’t give his age as an excuse. 23 may be young for the league, but he’s still an adult. He’s old enough to face the consequences of his actions.

 

If you’re publicly discussing this topic, keep this in mind: you never know what kind of effect your words will have. If you’re giving Osuna the benefit of the doubt and taking the “innocent until proven guilty” stance, ask yourself if you’d do the same if the accused and the victim were both strangers to you. Ask if you’d have the same reflex if you were familiar with the victim instead.

 

If you’re inclined to make generalizations about the “type of woman” who would report her boyfriend to the police, or would stay in a relationship with someone who hits her, keep in mind that one out of every five women around you might be an abuse victim themselves. He doesn’t need you to defend him. But your friends and family members might need your support someday, and they’re going to remember what you said.

 

I am not a psychologist, or a social worker, or a lawyer. I don’t know the best way for the team or the league to respond, especially to a situation in which the exact details haven’t yet been made public.

 

What I do know is that we can’t let our love of the game, and admiration for the men who play it, blind us to the fact that baseball can intersect with any number of “real world” problems, often with devastating consequences for those involved.

 

Baseball can be a wonderful escape. On the other hand, it can also be an ugly reminder of the things you were trying to escape from in the first place.

 

***

 

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with domestic violence, here are some women’s shelters and resources in the Toronto area. If you do not need help, please consider supporting their efforts. 

Although this story involved a female victim, approximately 17% of DV victims are men. The following groups offer support to male victims of domestic abuse:

 

 

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