Hal Steinbrenner defends the Aroldis Chapman acquisition by invoking “innocent until proven guilty”

Associated Press

The Yankees traded for Aroldis Chapman recently. The same Aroldis Chapman who was investigated by police — and subsequently not charged — for allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing several shots from his gun during the course of the altercation. When meeting the media today, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner had this to say about it:

“In this country where allegations are brought against a person,’’ Steinbrenner said in his first public comments on Chapman, “that person is completely innocent until proven otherwise. Not the other way around. I think we should keep that in mind right now . . . I understand it is a very sensitive subject, as rightfully so, but we just have to wait and see. It’s a touchy subject, but again, a man is innocent proven guilty.’’

While it is certainly true that, in the criminal justice system, “innocent until proven guilty” is our standard, the invocation of “innocent until proven guilty” in this case is beside the point. There were no charges brought against Chapman in our criminal justice system. There remains, however, an investigation by Major League Baseball pursuant to the league’s new domestic violence policy which specifically states that its standards are not the same as the criminal justice system. He could quite easily not be charged by law enforcement yet still be suspended by Major League Baseball even if he’s not “proven guilty.”

Likewise, none of us, if publicly alleged to have been involved in an ugly, violent incident would ever be given a “get out of controversy free” card by virtue of saying “hey, innocent until proven guilty.” We’d be subject to condemnation by our peers and possibly discipline by our employer. We’d possibly have to forfeit professional licenses and fundamentally alter the manner in which we carry out the relationships in our lives, all without ever once being “proven guilty.”

Indeed, it is because this is not the subject of the criminal justice system — a system which is notoriously inadequate at dealing with matters of domestic violence, it should be noted — that “innocent until proven guilty” is not an adequate response here. It’s a copout. Aroldis Chapman’s status as a New York Yankee is a matter of public perception, not criminal sanction. It is about the message being sent by a sports team to its fans, not about the sentence being handed out by a judge. It is about the stuff that team owners, the media and the fans love to talk about when the news is good — character, integrity, makeup and poise — being serious, serious problem when it involves a guy who is alleged to have done some seriously heinous things. What of that, Hal?

No one is proposing that Aroldis Chapman be blackballed. No one is saying that he should be prevented from plying his trade. But Hal Steinbrenner should not for one moment think that the invocation of a completely irrelevant standard in the face of a very serious situation should end the discussion about his acquisition of player who, overnight, has become an understandable lightning rod for legitimate criticism. Hal Steinbrenner is going to benefit from every save Aroldis Chapman notches for the Yankees this year. Should he not talk about what makes him OK with his fortunes rising and falling on Chapman’s performance? Should he not acknowledge that a lot of Yankees fans may be uneasy about Chapman being on the team? Should he not appreciate that the very act of acquiring Chapman has put a good number of Yankees fans in a situation where they may have a much harder time supporting the team than they did before he was acquired?

That’s the real point here: the tradeoffs everyone involved here is making yet no one seems to want to talk about. Now would be a great time for Steinbrenner to engage the fans of his team and the media which covers it and talk about what a player’s character and off-the-field conduct means and what it doesn’t mean. When a transgression is too great to be ignored no matter how talented the player in question or if there is such a point when that happens at all. To admit that the only thing that matters is winning if that is indeed the case or to talk about things that may be more important than winning if such things exist.

Let me be clear about something: I have no idea what the correct answer to any of those questions is. If I were an owner I am not sure how I’d approach such matters and I certainly can’t speak for Hal Steinbrenner. For as repugnant as it may be to acquire a shady player, maybe it’s the right idea for a guy in Steinbrenner’s position to sign any player who isn’t incarcerated who can help the Yankees win. Maybe too many people depend on the team’s fortunes to make examples out of the Aroldis Chapmans of the world. Maybe it’s even worse for Chapman and the people he loves and who depend on him for him to be shunned or disparaged in ways Steinbrenner seems not to want to disparage him. I have no idea. These are truly tough questions to ask that go to the very heart of what we as sports fans want out of professional teams, the leagues in which they play and the players which they employ to be. Should they be moral examples? Are we hypocrites in expecting them to be? Are we complicit if we expect them not to be?

Again, I really don’t know the answers to those questions. But I really wish people like Hal Steinbrenner would bother to entertain them rather than blow them off with nonsense like “innocent until proven guilty,” which does nothing but lower the standard for a professional athlete’s conduct to the absolute bare minimum — only those who, beyond reasonable doubt have done something technically illegal shall be judged — without for one second admitting that by doing so he is lowering that standard.