When an athlete—or anyone, really—is accused of domestic violence, the language used to describe the incident, the accused, or the accuser matters. Language can shape the narrative, as well as the perception of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. While professional sports leagues—from Major League Baseball to the National Football League—have greatly improved the way they handle domestic violence and sexual assault, there’s still a long way to go. Last week, the Detroit Tigers announced that they’d signed catcher Derek Norris to a minor league deal. Normally, this kind of signing would hardly be newsworthy, but Norris’ ex-fiancé accused him of abusing her while he was a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kristen Eck said Norris put her her into a choke hold, pulled her hair, and physically prevented her from moving in 2015. As a result of the assault, Eck said that she suffers from depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. Norris was never charged, he denied wrongdoing, and he was accused in a since-deleted blog post—not a police report—but the allegations were serious enough for the MLB to suspend Norris for the final month of the 2017 season. “Mr. Norris cooperated throughout the investigation, including submitting to an in-person interview with MLB’s Department of Investigations,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “After reviewing the evidence, I determined that Mr. Norris’ conduct warranted discipline.” He also donated $100,000 of his $1.2 million salary to domestic violence organizations.
While signing an alleged abuser is eyebrow raising in itself, the Tigers General Manager Al Avila’s comments about the signing are downright harmful. “We signed a good kid,” Avila said, according to the Detroit News. “We know this kid. It’s not his character.” Norris attended high school with the Tigers Assistant General Manager David Chadd, which might explain Avila also saying, “David Chadd has known the guy for a long time, he knows the father, he knows the issue.” Referring to a 28-year-old veteran baseball player as a “kid” not only infantilizes him, but minimizes his actions by implying that it was a mistake made by someone who didn’t know any better. That rhetoric buys into the “everyone makes mistakes” trope that so many players and managers have historically fallen into when discussing domestic violence.
From left to right New York Mets infielder José Reyes and New York Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Abuse is a demonstrable, calculated pattern of behavior, not a one-time lapse in judgment. It can be hard to accept that someone you know is capable of abusive behavior, but just calling Norris “a kid” and saying that abuse is “not his character” is an outright denial of his accuser’s account. The Tigers’ executives are saying, point blank, that they don’t believe Eck. Unfortunately, this is not the first time MLB players, coaches, and executives have downplayed or denied domestic violence allegations that were deemed credible enough to result in a suspension. When the Boston Globe reported on domestic violence allegations against Steve Lyons, a former baseball player who now works as a Red Sox analyst for NESN, they described the domestic assault charges as something Lyons had been “dealing with,” which minimized the severity of the allegations.
Writing about them as something passive that seemingly happened to him downplays the fact that the incident resulted in injuries to his girlfriend’s face— something that would have required active participation on Lyons’ part. All charges against Lyons have since been dropped, but giving the benefit of the doubt to the alleged perpetrator ignores the impact on the victim. In this way, the potential consequences for an alleged abuser are seen as more significant than the trauma suffered by their victim. Similarly, conversations about infielder Jose Reyes and pitcher Aroldis Chapman shows that the MLB’s players, coaches, and the journalists who cover the sport, are still figuring out how to talk about abuse and violence against women, particularly when an athlete is at fault.
After Reyes was accused of grabbing his wife by the throat and throwing her into a glass door, a USA Today story painted him as the victim. “Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes is paying a significant price, and may come to epitomize Major League Baseball’s domestic violence cases,” columnist Bob Nightengale wrote when Reyes was suspended for 51 games. “The man forfeited his dignity. He will forfeit about $7 million. He even lost his job.” Yet, the suspension did not lessen his prospects as a player: The New York Mets signed Reyes as soon as his suspension ended. The USA Today column failed to mention what his wife might have lost—her sense of safety, trust, and privacy—as a result of the violence.
In 2016, Chapman received a 30-game suspension for firing his gun into a garage door during an argument with his girlfriend and allegedly strangling her. Prosecutors didn’t file charges, mostly due to Chapman’s girlfriend and other witnesses not cooperating with the investigation. When he began playing again, he said at a press conference, “I didn’t do anything. People are thinking that it’s something serious; I have not put my hands on anyone, didn’t put anyone in danger.” When pressed about his girlfriend calling 911 while hiding in the bushes, he defended the incident as “just an argument with your partner that everyone has” and rationalized that “we Latin people are loud when we argue.” Chapman is still considered a star closer in the game, and received a standing ovation from the crowd during his first appearance post-suspension. He won the World Series with the Chicago Cubs that season. We know that Chapman is doing fine; still unclear, however, is how his girlfriend is coping.
New York Mets pitcher Jeurys Familia (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Similarly, after New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia was suspended for allegedly “shouldering” a door and locking himself in a bathroom with knives, Familia’s statement insisted that there was no domestic violence involved. He said it was “important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed, or threatened my wife that evening.” His wife, however, may have a different perception of whether property destruction and stockpiling knives constitutes a threat.
To the MLB’s credit, all of the players mentioned have been suspended, thanks to their domestic violence policy, which rolled out in 2015. Although charges were either dropped or never filed in these reported incidents, the league is acknowledging all of the complex dynamics of abuse, such as victims often dropping charges because they’re afraid or their abuser apologized. There might not be enough evidence for a criminal conviction, but that doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t happen. Most victims who come forward have very little incentive to do so, and their stories must be taken seriously. But the comments from teams themselves show that not everyone in baseball has gotten the memo about the seriousness of domestic violence.
In a culture that is more concerned with how abuse allegations could destroy a man’s life than how the abuse affected the victim, these domestic violence allegations and suspensions have not negatively impacted the careers of any of these men. Familia, Norris, and Reyes have all been signed or remained employed by MLB teams; Chapman has not only been signed, but is widely considered to be a nasty closing pitcher—a testament to the idea that if a player is good enough, teams and fans alike will overlook a lot of unsavory behavior. I’m not saying that people don’t deserve second chances, or that Norris and other alleged abusers should never play baseball again. However, signing someone accused of physical violence against an ex-partner should come with an explanation that doesn’t include an outright denial of those allegations.
In the era of #MeToo, when women are asking simply for people to believe them, Avila’s statement about Norris does the opposite of that. All of these statements, justifications, and obfuscations contribute to a culture that disbelieve victims, and gives the benefit of the doubt to the accused instead of the accuser.
Chicago Cubs short stop Addison Russell was accused of abusing his wife, Melisa Reidy, in June (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since approximately 30 percent of MLB’s viewing audience are women, it’s important to recognize that not every fan can or will overlook abusive behavior just because someone is very good at playing baseball. For many fans, the abuse is reflective of their own experiences, and they identify more with the victim than the athlete who perpetrated it. But when the perspectives of male athletes, male coaches, and male fans are centered, their experiences are erased altogether. Words matter, and when MLB players or teams brush aside domestic violence accusations as either minor inconveniences or unsubstantiated allegations, they make it less likely that victims will come forward at all.
They send a loud and clear message: The victim is not important, and the perpetrator’s reputation and talent matters more. And in a situation where there is already a great power imbalance (a famous male athlete against an unknown female partner), that disparity becomes even further magnified. Signing an accused abuser comes a responsibility for the team to show that it fully grasps the dynamics of domestic violence, and understands that anyone—even people they know—can be perpetrators. When I interviewed Claire Smith, the first full-time MLB beat writer who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, she said that the way we discuss violence against women has “changed tremendously for the better” since she started writing about baseball in 1983. Now, she said, “if athletes or coaches want to say those things [about players accused of violence being ‘good guys’ who make mistakes], we are allowed to call them on the way they say them.”
And until something changes, we must continue calling them out. Their victims deserve better; fans—especially those who have been victims of violence themselves—deserve better; and the young boys watching and learning from their idols deserve better role models. We must end the cycle of violence.