Sports, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault
Among fans of Major League Baseball (MLB), the month of October is synonymous with the playoffs. This October saw the Houston Astros trying to defend their World Series title from last season. Most of their championship-winning team from 2017 remained intact, but they made sure to address their bullpen, or relief pitchers, a unit that faltered in last year’s playoffs and was seen as their Achilles heel. After a rocky start to the 2018 regular season season, the Astros' front office helped right the ship by making some mid-season player acquisitions, ultimately transforming their bullpen into one of the best in baseball during the last two months of the regular season.
Roberto Osuna, one of the pitchers the Astros acquired to improve their bullpen, is only 25-years-old and has already established himself as a standout baseball player. Additionally, the Astros traded no player of significant value to acquire him. Getting a player of this caliber in the prime of his career for such a discount rarely happens.
But Osuna had carried more than a gifted arm with him. He also had carried an assault charge.
Osuna received a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy earlier this season, and when his suspension concluded in early August and he debuted for his new team, Katie Strang of The Athletic, a sports journalism publication, noted an eerie possibility:
Imagine Osuna throwing the ninth inning of a Game 7 in the World Series. A player whose actions were apparently egregious enough to prompt an internal decision by the Blue Jays that he’d never pitch another game for their team, taking center stage in the most public possible moment of the sport.
Rightfully, Strang pointed out that Osuna’s return was not the first time a professional athlete has returned to the field following a suspension related to violence against a woman, not the first time a front office executive used the deliberative rhetoric of second chances to justify a questionable addition to his ballclub, and not the first time that fans “had to grapple with the boundaries of their allegiances.” Moreover, Osuna’s domestic assault charge was dropped upon the pitcher’s agreement to a peace bond, so he did not pitch in the playoffs with a pending criminal case, and the Boston Red Sox defeated the Astros in the American League Championship Series, precluding Strang's scenario of Osuna pitching in the World Series.
There is precedent for the Astros’ controversial move. The MLB’s most recognizable franchise, the New York Yankees, pulled off a similar trade when acquiring Aroldis Chapman, a standout pitcher who had been suspended by the league for choking a woman before the 2016 season. Subsequently, the Yankees traded Chapman to the Chicago Cubs midway through the same season, where he was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of that year’s World Series when the Cubs won their first title in 108 years. The National Football League (NFL) is rife with players who take the field after physical and/or sexual assault accusations have been lodged against them-- conduct which has come under fire under the belief that the NFL does not take significant action to curb this issue. Though the National Basketball Association (NBA) has mostly remained free of such allegations against its players, the rape accusation against NBA icon Kobe Bryant in 2003 reemerged in public discourse as he accepted an Oscar in 2018.
How, whether, or when to give any offender a second chance is up for debate, but exploiting a a player’s status to boost a team does not bode well for the sports industry if it wants to send the right message on domestic violence and sexual assault. And that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The problem persists despite the fact that the sports industry through recognizable stars such as LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Roger Federer, advertises itself as an institution that seeks to inspire others, particularly younger generations, to strive to become their best selves. This is in part due to the national platform the world provides for its sporting feats. Whether it be the Olympics, World Cup, Commonwealth Games, or the Super Bowl, people across the globe look to athletes as role models for children, adolescents, and society at large. But when sports leagues and franchises sacrifice integrity and capitalize on ugly circumstances to elevate the on-the-field product, we begin to ask ourselves whether this is the example that sports should be setting for its young, not to mention predominantly male, worldwide audience in regards to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Ben Roethlisberger, who quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to two Super Bowl victories, was accused of rape twice between 2008 and 2010. Yet, he has largely maintained a supportive public image among his fanbase and has continued to earn millions as part of his Hall of Fame career. On the other hand, in 2014, Ray Rice, a running back for the Steelers’ archrival Baltimore Ravens, was indicted on aggravated assault charges against his wife and was initially suspended by the NFL for two regular season games. However, after TMZ released a violent video of Rice punching his then-fiancee in an elevator, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whom at the time was infamously regarded for his lenient track record on domestic cases, announced that the NFL had intensified its domestic violence policy. As a result, Rice’s suspension was made indefinite, and the Ravens cut their embattled player.
The NFL’s circumstantial admission that it mishandled Rice’s case sent shockwaves around the league, and, like with Roethlisberger, some Ravens fans supported Rice and called out the NFL for “[taking] that man’s job away.”However, the gravity of physical proof, as in Rice’s case, has undoubtedly been a factor that has differentiated Rice’s treatment by the NFL. Previously, many NFL players like Roethlisberger, had received a suspension and then become fully reinstated to the league, including former MVP Adrian Peterson after he was indicted for reckless and negligent injury to a child, former first round draft pick Jameis Winston after being accused of groping an Uber driver, and star running back Ezekiel Elliott following accusations of domestic violence assaults against his ex-girlfriend. Unlike them, Rice will never see the field again.
All of this highlights the shortcomings of the NFL’s domestic violence policy despite the policy’s updates. These include inconsistent player punishments, uneven and non-transparent investigative processes, and, according to a Georgetown law professor who resigned from the NFL Players Association’s (NFLPA) commission on domestic violence in June 2018, “lip service...so that, in essence, the NFLPA could say it was confronting domestic violence abuses long enough for the Rice story to fall out of the news cycle.”
The MLB has some work to do, as well. According to Fangraphs, a reputable baseball statistics and analysis blog, the MLB domestic violence policy contains many notable flaws. Namely, it serves as an inadequate substitute for criminal law, punishes players less for domestic violence incidents than for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, and keeps providing insufficient rehabilitation treatment for its offenders, which complicates how to prevent unrepentant domestic abusers from creating bigger problems for the league’s reputation. The latter can be summed up by these comments from former catcher Derek Norris upon returning from his domestic violence suspension:
International sports landscapes have also come under intense scrutiny, perhaps none more widespread than the Olympics. According to the Washington Post, “More than 290 coaches and officials associated with the United States' Olympic sports organizations have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1982.”The most infamous of these accusations occurred in early 2017 when over 265 women accused former USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, officially introducing the #MeToo Movement to the sports landscape. An integral figure with USAG and at Michigan State University for nearly two decades, Nassar was never confronted by the authorities or supervisors for his behavior. Instead, they “turned the other way” and relied on maneuvers such as “widespread denial, inaction and information suppression.” The aftermath of the Nasser criminal prosecution resulted in the resignations of the entire 18-member USAG board as well as president of Michigan State University. Subsequently, Nassar has been handed a sentence of 40 to 125 years in prison and his actions sit in the record books as the worst sex abuse scandal in sports history.
Most strikingly, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best soccer players and most famous athletes of all time, currently faces a sexual assault allegation from an incident dating back to 2009. According to the Kathryn Mayorga, the woman who filed charges against the soccer star, Ronaldo hired a team of fixers to coerce her into signing an agreement to receive $375,000 worth of hush money after he raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room. Despite the credible accusations, Ronaldo continues to play for his club, the Italian giant Juventus, and while facing these rape allegations, he has received nothing but unyielding support from his Italian club, and has decried Mayorga’s accusation as “fake news.” Thus, it should come as no surprise if Ronaldo, like other star athletes before him, comes away with merely a scratch to his reputation while adoring fans continue to cheer his breathtaking skills on the pitch.
The #MeToo Movement’s reach is not limited to women; the global campaign has also emboldened former male athletes to come forward with their sexual assault stories, most notably at The Ohio State University. Over 100 men from the 1970s to the 1990s claimed that the late Dr. Richard Strauss, a team doctor and physician for the university’s wrestling team, molested them, and three lawsuits have been filed against Ohio State for enabling a sexual predator. Of note is that Congressman Jim Jordan, the assistant wrestling coach from 1987-1995 who ranks among the favorites to become the new Speaker of the House should the Republicans keep their majority following the November 2018 midterm elections, has not only denied any knowledge about sexual misconduct, but said of a former wrestler’s accusations, “He’s out to get Ohio State...He has a vendetta against our family.”
That constitutes one major part of the problem at hand--believability. In a he-said-she-said culture, oftentimes an emotional denial or tenable alibi from those in a position of power or high renown can shut down an accusation, regardless of the inherent credibility in the accusation. Sports occupy an influential space in public discourse, making the industry no exception to the rule.
Another important issue is the understanding that many fans do not care about character as much as they care about their team or favorite player winning, as demonstrated by the aforementioned Osuna and Chapman trades, the 2017 NFL Draft, and Ronaldo’s lack of punishment by his club. Contrary to this, lesser known and valued NFL players such as Josh Brown, Rodney Austin, and Roy Miller were released without much fanfare, potentially making the decisions to cut them easier for their front offices. With such an emphasis on winning and the all the benefits that accompany it, even the best-run sports franchises will sacrifice integrity to get an edge. This is an unfortunate truth to sports as the cost for younger generations and the leagues themselves is simply incalculable.
Though it is paradoxical that the way things are make it very difficult for sports to have it both ways, change may be on the horizon. At the end of the 2018 MLB regular season, the Chicago Cubs starting shortstop Addison Russell’s ex-wife Melisa Reidy reported a positive experience with MLB investigators when cooperating with them to assess her domestic abuse allegations against Russell, and the Cubs jubilantly supported her and pledged to help Russell moving forward, as well. (Russell received a 40 game suspension for his actions). The NFL has seen a decrease in domestic abusers since 2014 and the NBA has been praised for its domestic violence policy and enforcement. In response to the Larry Nassar scandal, President Donald Trump signed a bill that passed with overwhelming support from both houses of Congress to prevent amateur athletes from abuse. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, officials set up four sexual violence counselling centers for the athletes in Pyeongchang. The Players’ Tribune, a media platform devoted to publishing first-person stories written directly from the athletes themselves, has also served as a popular outlet for athletes to share their experiences with people around the world. Finally, just as it has in permeated corporate America and Hollywood, the #MeToo movement has altered the sports landscape, as women and men alike continue to call attention to domestic violence and sexual assault and bring it to the forefront of public discourse with hopes of compelling sports leagues to hold players accountable through strong rhetoric in addition to accompanying disciplinary actions when necessary.
With unlimited potential and some progress already being made, sports can absolutely be part of the solution on domestic violence and sexual assault by setting a positive example to its audience. The institutional policies and lack of accountability from the establishments themselves, however, make sports more of the problem than anything else.