Lessons not learned in Jose Reyes’s return

Last week, I listened to a very smart, well-respected Mets beat writer say this about Jose Reyes’ return to baseball following his suspension for attacking and injuring his wife in a Hawaii hotel in October: “If his wife has forgiven him, that should be good enough for the rest of us.”

Anyone who has worked in the domestic violence community will tell you this comment misses the mark by a good mile. When a victim refuses to cooperate in the prosecution of an abusive partner, it is often less about forgiveness than it is about survival — emotional, physical and financial. It is about saving face, de-escalating the situation and making things right with the abuser again. Few domestic violence arrests end in divorce or separation, which means once the abuser is released from jail, he is returning home to live, once again, with his victim.

In comments strikingly similar to those Bears President George McCaskey made about Ray McDonald, Mets GM Sandy Alderson had this to say about Reyes:

“I came away feeling that he had taken responsibility for this mistake on his part, that he was remorseful,” Alderson said during a conference call with reporters. “He obviously has paid a penalty for this, both financially and in terms of his career.”

MLB sent out this tweet to herald Reyes’ return to baseball:

Reyes’ return to baseball may not be the sort of thing MLB wants to celebrate, particularly while it still basks in the glow of its not-perfect-but-better-than-everyone-else’s domestic violence policy. Reyes is not returning from a stint on the 60-day DL. Reyes missed 52 games because he was charged by Hawaii prosecutors for allegedly grabbing his wife by the neck and throwing her into a glass door at a hotel. She was taken to hospital with injuries to her neck, wrist and leg. And yet it was MLB, the same league that disciplined Reyes, leading the welcome wagon upon his return, attaching a photo in which Reyes looks like the nicest guy around.

A significant faction of sports fans are increasingly uncomfortable with the way teams herald the return to the game of guys like Reyes; Aroldis Champman, who was suspended 30 days for strangling his girlfriend and firing eight shots from a handgun inside his garage while his newborn child slept inside the house; Art Briles, who allegedly oversaw a department-wide conspiracy to intimidate victims and cover up rape allegations against Baylor football players; Johnny Manziel, who was indicted for assaulting his girlfriend in Dallas; Derrick Rose, who is currently being sued in civil court for the alleged gang-rape of an ex-girlfriend; Greg Hardy, who was charged with and initially convicted of beating his ex-girlfriend in North Carolina; Slava Voynov who was self-deported to Russia after pleading guilty to corporal injury to a spouse; and Ray McDonald, who was indicted in separate cases for sexual assault and domestic violence. The list gets longer every year.

Yet two years after NFL apologists were forced to eat their “how do we know she’s not lying?” defense when a video emerged showing Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator, pro sports, the media and many fans have learned little about the dynamics of violence against women, or how to handle the return to their leagues of players accused of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The common approach, as illustrated by MLB’s tweet, is to pretend that nothing happened, and to hail the returning player as a conquering hero who has overcome great odds to play the sport he loves again. Sadly, the media has followed suit. The moment Reyes’ suspension ended, sports talk shows lit up with conversations about how he could help the local team. Very few of those conversations included any mention of why Reyes was suspended in the first place.

Those media members who did try to introduce the allegations against Reyes into the conversation were, predictably, met with a chorus of dismissive tweets from angry fans:

The refrain from these sorts of fans is always the same: “So you think someone who makes a mistake should never be allowed to work again?” “He admitted he made a mistake, what more do you want him to do?” “Why can’t you separate on-field performance from off-field issues?”

Kathy Redmond Brown, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, says this need to whitewash Reyes’ past is about the fans themselves as much as it is about the sports they love: “There’s a need to move past [the allegations] because they reflect an ugly American conscience that people don’t want to face about their heroes, who, because of the city, team or college they represent, reflect their own constructed identities and values.”

Very few fans want players to be banned for life for a single incident (although it is worth noting that pro sports leagues are private employers, and no one has a god-given right to play professional sports.) But it is important to acknowledge a few points to understand the disappointment and anger felt by those fans who have criticized the mostly positive reception to Reyes’ return (and the return of other athletes in similar situation before him).

First, what bothers these fans is not so much the fact second chances exist, but the feeling second chances are a matter of course. Second chances, when they are earned and sincerely advocated for, are a good thing. But the narrative that every player deserves one, regardless of his crime or effort to restore his victim to wholeness, is unworthy of professional sports. The idea that everyone deserves a second chance has long been proved false. Some people earn second chances. There’s a nuance that demands recognition.

Second, it is important for sports leagues to recognize that what they always seem to refer to as “a single mistake” may well have been part of a larger pattern. After all, no one is going to admit to their employer they were arrested for beating their wife for the 50th time when they could admit they were arrested for beating their wife for the first time. Since abuser violence tends to escalate over the course of a relationship, it defies belief and years of domestic violence research to suggest an abuser had never laid a hand on his partner before the time he grabbed her by the neck and threw her into a glass door. Of course, it is unfair to single out Reyes here. Almost every team that signs a player accused of domestic assault relies heavily on the “single mistake” theme.

Finally, it is okay for newly-reinstated players to slip back into the fold under the radar, play a few games, keep their heads down, do their jobs. It is the “return of the conquering hero” narrative that is so off-putting. Teams regularly ignore the violence a player is accused of while at the same time loudly proclaiming that “he is a changed man.” This looks, and most likely is, disingenuous.

True change, particularly when it comes to domestic violence, takes time and reflection, and a hell of a lot more than 52 games. The idea that a player can become fully rehabilitated in such a short space of time is insulting to fans, roughly 30 percent of whom have been victims of domestic violence themselves, and many more of whom witnessed it in their homes as children.

MLB’s domestic violence policy has been a step forward when it comes to disciplining athletes accused of violence against women. It is high time the teams, media and fans make the leap forward as well.

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