Last week, Alexis Blackburn, girlfriend of Major League Baseball relief pitcher Sam Dyson, made a pair of disturbing posts on Instagram, one in her own name and one in an account credited to the couple’s cat, Snuckles. The post written in the voice of the cat tells a harrowing tale of the animal being violently battered while ensconced inside what was previously a favorite cardboard box. Blackburn’s own post speaks of a life spent continually apologizing for her actions, resulting in severe physical and mental anguish. While she did not initially name Dyson in the posts, Blackburn has since admitted to the U.K.-based Daily Mail that Dyson is, in fact, her abuser.
Major League Baseball has launched an investigation into the free agent 31-year-old reliever who is already slated to miss the majority of the 2020 season due to shoulder surgery. It is not the first time that a social media post has inspired action from MLB. In 2017 both catcher Derek Norris and infielder Addison Russell were entangled in abuse cases that landed on the desk of the Commissioner’s office via social media. After a protracted legal battle, Russell was suspended for forty games at the start of the 2019 season. On Monday of this week, he was non-tendered by the Cubs, and his future remains unknown. Norris was suspended for the remainder of the 2017 season and has not appeared in another major league game since.
Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy has only been in place since August 2015. There were a number of high profile domestic abuse cases in the years before the policy, including accusations against such notables as Jose Canseco, Dante Bichette and Barry Bonds, players whose names are also intrinsically linked to steroid usage. While a thorough study has never been done, it is a fair assumption to make that the number of domestic abuse cases likely spiked during the era when players were rampantly injecting drugs which caused uncontrollable rage as a side-effect. None of those pre-policy players ever faced a direct penalty for their actions. Baseball, and professional sport in general, has a long history of sweeping these tales under the rug.
Stories of spousal abuse, met with a complacent attitude by Organized Baseball, litter even the earliest days of the game and feature some of the biggest names. The wife of Jimmy Ryan, a star player with Chicago in the 1890s, left him after he beat her with a loaf of bread in 1898. He played in the majors for another four seasons after the divorce. Hattie Dahlen, the wife of infielder “Bad Bill” Dahlen, divorced him in 1901 after he repeatedly abused her, including punching her in the face and choking her. Dahlen remained in pro baseball for another decade. Tony Mullane was one of the premiere pitchers of the nineteenth-century, winning more than thirty games four times. He was also a serial abuser of his wife, once chasing her through their home with a knife. She divorced him in 1894, just as his baseball career was ending. He later spent decades working as a complaint sergeant for the Chicago Police Department.
The most famous marriage in all of baseball history also ended because of abuse. Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, like most of America, was captivated by the aura of Marilyn Monroe. When he had a chance to meet her, he aggressively pursued her and the two married in January 1954. However, the reserved, private DiMaggio was wholly unprepared to share his wife, an international sex symbol, with the world. The marriage was tempestuous and it all came to a head in September, just eight months after they wed. DiMaggio was in attendance for the public filming of the famed skirt-blowing scene from The Seven-Year Itch. The playful sexuality of the shoot enraged DiMaggio who stormed off the site. His reaction when she returned home later that evening was the final straw, and less than a month later Monroe announced their divorce due to “mental cruelty.”
It is notable that in all of these early cases we only know of the abuse as a result of the subsequent divorce. There were likely untold hundreds of other abused wives of ballplayers that history failed to note because they never left their husbands. The efforts that both the teams and the media put in to maintaining the positive image of baseball heroes only faced a significant threat when the more titillating headlines of divorce were able to sell a few more papers.
Baseball does not have a monopoly when it comes to domestic violence by athletes. The National Football League only publicly began to address its violence problems a scant few months before MLB, largely in response to the case of Ray Rice. In 2014 Rice beat his then-fiancée Janay Palmer into unconsciousness in an Atlantic City elevator, before he dragged her body out into the hall. His initial lenient punishment, a two-game ban, was met with such widespread condemnation that Commissioner Roger Goodell revised it to an entire year. Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, voided his contract.
Rice was never signed by another club and his career with the NFL was effectively over, but the damage control was just beginning for Goodell. The Commissioner hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the matter to prove that the league had no part in covering up the story. Mueller, of course, is now more famous for investigating another serial abuser of women who has so far escaped punishment. His examination of the NFL found that while the league did not hide the matter, their approach to the larger systemic issue was found wanting.
The response of Mueller’s investigation was, ostensibly, an update to the league’s 2007 Personal Conduct policy. Now, in theory, a player who has committed domestic violence is supposed to be suspended six games for the first episode, and then for-life after a second episode. The implementation of the policy, however, remains problematic. In 2015 New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was arrested on a domestic violence charge. After an initial one-game suspension, it took almost a year-and-a-half for the mandated six-game ban to actually be put into effect, and that was only after league officials obtained police documents which included Brown’s admission of the crime.
Critics of the NFL’s policy argue that even when it is implemented speedily, it is really only addressing punishment and does little to educate players and prevent violence in the first place. In the four years since the Brown case, 17 more players in the NFL have either been arrested, indicted or had warrants issued for domestic violence charges, the latest just two weeks ago when Miami Dolphins running back Mark Walton repeatedly punched his pregnant girlfriend in the head. The NFL’s violence prevention techniques are so lacking that Deborah Epstein, who was hired by the Player’s Association to help them curb the epidemic, left her post in June 2018 in disgust. Epstein, who is also the co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, called the work of the NFLPA nothing more than “lip service.”
The National Basketball Association has had its own uneven journey as it tries to manage violence by its players. At the same time the Ray Rice drama was playing out in the NFL, Charlotte Hornets forward Jeff Taylor was accused of hitting his girlfriend in a hotel hallway. Commissioner Adam Silver, perhaps sensing which way the Rice case was making the wind blow, immediately suspended Taylor for 24 games, almost 30% of the season. He also made all of the details of the case public in an attempt to prevent accusations of a lack of transparency. The move was lauded at the time as an example from which Goodell could learn.
Since the Taylor case, only three members of the NBA have been arrested for charges stemming from domestic violence, an astonishing statistic considering the NBA was once the league that was the most troubled by domestic abuse. Perhaps the most disturbing of these recent tales was the case of Jabari Bird, who repeatedly strangled his girlfriend before she was able to escape. His team, the Boston Celtics, publicly stated that they would allow the NBA to mete out his punishment. Instead of cutting him, the Celtics traded him to the Atlanta Hawks, who waived him, effectively ending his career. Still, he never faced any actual punishment from the NBA. Bird’s case, which also included kidnapping charges, just went before a judge at the end of October.
Even though the NBA’s policies seem to be more effective, especially at prevention, they can be accused of suffering from amnesia when it comes to certain players, especially those who had Hall of Fame careers on the boards. Jason Kidd was elevated to the NBA’s pantheon in 2018, and after he finished his decorated playing career, he spent five years as a head coach with the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. He is currently an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 2001 Kidd was arrested for hitting his wife, Joumana, a crime that resulted in a $200 fine and six months of anger management classes. Years later, when Kidd and his wife were divorcing, she alleged that he was a serial abuser, a claim that he refuted and aimed back at her, stating that she was the one who had been abusing him. While those events took place long before the NBA’s current domestic violence policies were put into effect, the repeated hiring of an individual with such a troubled past undercuts the more positive strides the league is trying to make.
It is the final league in the “big four,” the National Hockey League, that remains the most laissez-faire in its handling of the issue. To this day, the NHL still does not have a domestic violence punitive policy in their collective bargaining agreement. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the NHL is historically the league with the fewest reported domestic violence cases. They also deserve credit for implementing domestic assault and sexual violence awareness training in 2016, a preventative measure the other leagues have approached more lackadaisically.
However, without a contractually mandated methodology for handling domestic abuse, the league has sometimes found itself at the mercy of arbitrators when it comes to punishment. When Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson was suspended by the league for 27 games (33% of the season) in 2018 for pushing his girlfriend, an independent arbitrator reduced the suspension to 18, undercutting future punishments.
The lack of contractual specifics has also resulted in the years long saga of Slava Voynov. The Russian defenseman brutally beat his wife after a 2014 Halloween Party. He served two months in jail and has not played in the NHL since. Instead he returned to Russia, where he won a gold medal playing for the national team at the 2018 Olympics. To this day, Voynov is attempting to be reinstated into the NHL, a move the league is fighting on complicated legal ground because of the lack of specific language in their CBA.
It will be interesting to see how MLB handles the Dyson case. A total of 14 active ballplayers have been investigated for hitting their wives or girlfriends since the implementation of the domestic violence policy, and twelve of those investigations have resulted in suspensions. Writer Sheryl Ring has covered MLB’s handling of this issue extensively for both FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score, and she points out that while the punishments are admittedly getting more severe, the policy seems to be doing little to stop the behavior.
She has proposed a three-tier approach that would likely greatly improve the policy’s effectiveness. The first provides sufficient support for the survivors of domestic abuse, many of whom abandoned their own careers to support their husbands and are financially dependent on the men who hit them. The second would be the end of the practice of domestic abuse being used as a cost-saving measure for teams. Both Aroldis Chapman and Roberto Osuna, who were suspended for domestic violence, were considered damaged goods and were thus able to be signed by the Yankees and Astros, respectively, on the cheap. Ring’s final idea for improving the policy’s effectiveness is the one the NHL is most in need of, a uniform punishment scheme. While not all abuse is the same, adopting a policy with consistent punishments can act as a deterrent in a way that the current arbitrary system, which places absolute power in the hands of a Commissioner who is not an expert on the subject, does not.
Ring’s suggestions are good ones, and MLB would do well to listen. It is too late for women like Alexis Blackburn, but it is clear that this problem isn’t going away. As baseball and other sports struggle with the issue, nearly twenty people per minute are the victims of abuse by an intimate partner in the United States, the overwhelming majority of them women. While it is not realistic to expect Major League Baseball to do much to lessen this staggering number on a national level, the game does still do the one thing it always has done- create heroes. Perhaps if more of those heroes teach the little boys of today what it means to show respect, and not violence, to a partner, we can have a future without such horrifying numbers.
Special thanks to Sheryl Ring for her input. She is an incredible writer and if you aren’t already following her on Twitter, you should.
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