Why MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require a criminal conviction

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When Aroldis Chapman was suspended under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, a good number of people — some of them commenters at this site — took issue with it because “hey, he wasn’t charged with a crime.” The same has been said about Jose Reyes and will be said about him again when he is suspended, as he certainly will be.This is perfectly acceptable under Major League Baseball’s policy, of course, which specifically says that a criminal prosecution or conviction is not required for the league to investigate and discipline a player.

That language is not self-justifying. It’s well-considered and is part of the policy for a very good reason: a huge number of domestic assaults — ones that really happen and for which there is copious evidence, not just he-said, she-said situations — go uncharged and aren’t prosecuted for reasons other than the merits of the case.

Sometimes it’s because, as the case in Reyes’ situation, the victim does not cooperate with authorities. And, of course, there are a lot of reasons for that in and of itself which have nothing to do with the actual crime that occurred. In other cases, especially cases involving athletes or other famous perpetrators, it’s because the authorities are loathe to treat a famous person like they’d treat anyone else accused of a crime. They get special treatment and serious charges are often diminished or swept under the rug completely.

Today I read something that, while having nothing to do with baseball, speaks very well to how that dynamic works, both through law enforcement and in media coverage of famous men accused of serious crimes. It’s by Ronan Farrow at the Hollywood Reporter and it involves the sexual abuse accusations of his sister, Dylan Farrow, against their father Woody Allen. Allen, of course, was never charged with a crime in the matter. Nor, until recently, was Bill Cosby charged with anything despite years of allegations in his case. Farrow talks about how and why there were no charges in his sister’s case despite there being considerable evidence and how the fact that there were no charges does not mean nothing bad happened.

Farrow is a lawyer and, importantly, — and contrary to what so many people like to say in these situations —  he’s not at all arguing for criminal sanction against his father without due process. Rather, he’s interested in the way in which figures who are plausibly accused of bad things are treated by those around them and, especially, by the media in these cases. How they’re given free passes because so many don’t want to consider that the famous or powerful can be bad people or refuse to consider it because they fear repercussions or a lack of access if they do deal with the accusations frankly. Finally, and most importantly, he talks about how, perversely, the lack of charges and lack of scrutiny on the famous person is often turned back around and used as a cudgel to attack the victim anew.

Again, the story is not about baseball and not about domestic violence, but the dynamic that Farrow identifies is identical to the dynamic that so often plays out when athletes are accused of domestic violence. It’s the reason why MLB, in its wisdom, decided not to simply outsource its domestic violence operation to law enforcement and choose to throw up its hands if and when charges are not filed. And it’s an excellent reminder for all of us, when we discuss these cases, to understand that what appears on a docket sheet is not necessarily reflective of the facts of a case.

Regardless of what happens with the police and the court system, we should continue to scrutinize — fairly — those accused. And we should not disparage or disbelieve accusers simply because the legal system is ill-equipped to deal with these most difficult cases.