It hasn't been a great few weeks for sports media. Just this past week, our parent site SB Nation posted an article about Daniel Holtzclaw, a former college football player, Oklahoma City police officer, and serial rapist who was convicted to 263 years in prison. This article, which has now drawn extensive media attention and scrutiny, was wholly inappropriate and should not have been published, something that many have readily admitted. It ignored the lives of victims, it seemingly apologized for the horrid things Holtzclaw did, and it painted this man as a fallen idol instead of a bad guy who did a lot of really abhorrent things.
How does this happen? This type of mindset certainly doesn't foster itself over night. The reporter who wrote this piece clearly thought it was of a high quality, and four editors even gave it the thumbs up. For that to happen, there has to be a level of ingrained blindness to domestic violence and the way it's framed in the media, to the point where the Holtzclaw narrative becomes the default.
That brings us to Yankees spring training. The club has their own domestic violence issue, as they voluntarily traded for Aroldis Chapman, who is alleged to have choked his girlfriend and then fired off eight rounds of ammunition in his garage. These allegations were enough to force both the Red Sox and the Dodgers to back out from potential trades, but the Yankees swooped in and got themselves a "bargain."
Except they didn't, because we now have the current media situation, a situation that yields itself to perpetrator sympathizing to the point of ridiculousness. First, it began with a very awkward start to camp. Chapman said that he only wanted to focus on playing baseball, while manager Joe Girardi had to toe the line between supporting his new player but condemning the action that Chapman is alleged to have done. Here is what happened, according to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal (who covered this whole ordeal with incredible tact and nuance, which I'll get to later):
"I think there’s an expectation of conduct and how you’re supposed to handle situations that maybe in the court of law is different than the court of Major League Baseball’s opinion or the players association’s opinion or the public’s opinion," he said. "I understand that. I think we have a responsibility as athletes on the way we present ourselves on and off the field, and I’m OK with that."
Girardi said he hadn’t read the Chapman police report yet, but that he planned to. He described domestic violence as "something we don’t condone," and remarked at one point that "there are certain players that would be very hard to manage." He also talked at length about the importance of meeting Chapman in person before passing any judgment on his character.
"The most important thing is getting to know him more than the report," Girardi said. "I’ve always felt that to get the most out of a player and to really understand a player, you have to get to know him and get their heart, and I can’t do that from a police report."
This puts Girardi in the terrible position of having to get to know and manage a player who is on the docket for suspension, and then having to manage the tenuous situation once he returns. It's not really fair to him, and it's not fair to the chemistry of the club. That's besides the point.
After the initial questions were answered, it just kept coming. It'd be one thing to report on the situation, and then go back to news with the rest of the club, but the New York media, as we all know, is unrelenting. Chapman continued to address the media, stating that he would appeal any suspension (which is his collectively bargained right), and then he spoke once again to say he "didn't hurt anybody".
This may seem like the media merely covering the story, but according to Wallace Matthews of ESPN, their intentions are a bit different. He wrote in a recent article:
"The focus is no longer on Alex Rodriguez. That is what makes this Yankees spring training different from all others in the A-Rod Era."
There's the problem. Sports media, as currently constructed and especially in New York, thrives on scandal. So for the media, this isn't some opportunity to talk with nuance about domestic violence and its checkered history in baseball; no, this is about selling newspapers and getting clicks. That's unfortunate because they do need to sell newspapers and they do need to get clicks, but at what cost?
If we've learned anything from the Holtzclaw incident, it's that when we focus too closely on perpetrators--or even alleged perpetrators--and we fill our articles with fluff about how they're just trying to focus on the game, and how the manager will always support them, or their teammates will always have their back, it constructs the narrative of perpetrators as innocent bystanders, as people who existed in a baseball vacuum who found themselves as unwilling participants in said incident. It also turns victims into silent footnotes, which is the worst part of all of this.
But regardless of the outcome of this incident, Chapman was not an unwilling participant. He did in fact fire his weapon, which is not something to scoff at, and Major League Baseball is in a very important juncture where they need to set a proper precedent for future incidents, especially in the light of the NFL's failure to handle these cases in a just manner. MLB needs to be better. We're already seeing this unfold with the other high profile Jose Reyes case, and that has a criminal case component as well. In an article with The Walrus, Stacey May Fowles wrote:
"The knee-jerk response of sports culture to domestic violence was revealed to be thus: never risk offering a kind word to the victim, never vigorously chastise the action, and never offer a definitive opinion on the matter. Instead close up all the gates, lock all the doors, and recite meaningless, palatable, stock PR phrases until the problem dissipates."
While the Chapman case is not as cut and dry, with no criminal case involved, it's a bit spooky how the response is so similar no matter the case. I'm very much hoping that Rob Manfred handles this case with care and sets a precedent we can look at as a turning point years from now, but who really knows. In the end, Chapman will get the due process everyone so desires. He will get a ruling based on a collective bargaining agreement he accepted, and he will even get an appeal process to fight the ruling. He won't go to prison, and he will get to play baseball no matter what. He doesn't lose here. The victims always do, though.
Now, the onus is on the New York sports media to be better about presenting domestic violence to their audience. They need to address the issue of being so perpetrator-centric that they blind the public to the harm athletes can do, and they need to stop giving people attention through non-stories and those stock PR phrases that merely skirt the issue. Otherwise, another Holtzclaw piece is right around the corner.