On February 2nd, Hal Steinbrenner gave an interview regarding the new season, and in particular, he defended the signing of closer Aroldis Chapman, the recent Cub, Yankee, and Red who was suspended 30 days last year in violation of MLB’s new domestic violence policy. In it, Steinbrenner says the following:
“‘He admitted he messed up,’ Steinbrenner said at Major League Baseball’s owners’ meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. ‘He paid the penalty, right? Sooner or later we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.’”
After a brief uproar, Steinbrenner clarified to Newsday that he really meant “forgive” and not “forget”, but even if that is the case, the slip was enough to prove a point. Whether he truly meant it or not, the word came out, and it actually does speak some truth: fans don’t really care about a player’s domestic violence if they’re really good at baseball.
In any other world, this alone would be enough to keep me steaming, but as we know, it’s never just the one statement or the corporate speak with the Yankees. It compounded this Thursday, when the team brought in an “inspirational” speaker to psyche the team up before camp. Of literally all people throughout baseball and the sports world, the Yankees chose Jameis Winston. Winston, whose playing home is just across the street from George M. Steinbrenner field, works as a speaker in strictly a geographic sense, and that’s it.
Winston was alleged to have raped a woman in December of 2012, and the case spiraled into a massive scandal where the police did not charge Winston even though the victim identified him by name, had Winston’s DNA on her, and had bruises and signs of physical abuse. Because of the way Florida State University handled the case, they awarded the victim $950,000 as part of a Title IX complaint, and she and Winston settled in a civil case back in December.
Winston, with this exact history, went on to tell the Yankees about “motivating” and “determination”, and repeated his mantra of “no limits,” which is probably the least self-aware catchphrase in the history of catchphrases. Daniel Camarena said, “He talked like a grown man. He gave us some good advice.” Chance Adams said, “That was incredible. You could tell he was a quarterback when he came in. He got your attention from the get-go. He left a good message.”
And to put the cherry on top of this whole garbage sundae, Michael Pineda made a comment to the media in regards to the Jeurys Familia sexual assault case, where the Mets closer was arrested in Fort Lee after “attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly cause[s] bodily injury to another; upon observation of visible injuries, specifically a scratch to the chest and bruise to the right cheek of the victim.” Pineda said, “He's a friend, so you feel bad for him because he's a great guy... The guy that I know is a great person. Great person. Great guy... Sometimes we make a mistake. It happens for everybody ... mistakes. I made a mistake, too, a couple years ... drinking and driving.”
Taken individually, each of these comments represent small issues in of themselves: an inappropriate comment by Steinbrenner, a poor choice of speaker, Pineda making a bad statement to defend a friend. But taken together, and knowing the fact all of these statements were made around the same time, it shows that the Yankees as an organization have a systemic and widespread issue with their grappling of the issue of domestic violence.
And as I said, it’s funny that Steinbrenner’s comment was actually the truest of them all, because it shows that sports and fans and the whole culture really do just put these issues under the rug whenever the narrative suits them. When Chapman did what he did, it was a “mistake”. When Familia was arrested, it was also a “mistake”. When Winston succeeds, it’s through “determination”. It couldn’t be more wrong.
People are quick to condemn the condemnation. I and a few writers at this site have written at length about Chapman, and many commenters have gone out of their way to either defend Chapman, attack us, or to claim that we’re completely out of our depth when we even utter his name in the wrong way.
But these things have real world consequences. Think about that Winston case, and the Times piece on the investigation. When the victim finally identified Winston to the officer in charge of the case, he waited nearly two weeks to reach out to him, never collected DNA samples, and then simply said the victim was uncooperative, and then closed the case. It could have been because he was incompetent, of course, or it could have been because he was scared of a popular football player or his lawyer, or that he was working for FSU and a felony charge would sideline Winston as long as he was charged. We really don’t know.
What we do know is that statements like the ones made above contribute to the culture where victims are ignored and discredited, a culture where nearly 80% of sexual assaults go unreported, for this very reason. It’s very easy to draw a straight line from casually defending abusers to taking the athlete’s case and tossing it in the wastebasket.
The only way to end this culture, to create an environment that is more victim-focused and does not lend people to consistently give the benefit of the doubt to an abuser in any circumstance, large organizations need to get smart about how they talk about this. They could have had anyone talk other than Winston, and no one forced them to make the comments they did. That’s on them.
This isn’t changing because the organization isn’t going to suddenly turn the light switch on, but we as fans, even the ones who feel this extends beyond the purview of their fandom, should at least try to understand that this issue does exist, it affects a lot of people, and it could be talked about and treated a little better in sports. It doesn’t mean we have to boycott or renounce or fandom, but it’s something to understand as an undercurrent of our society.
Sports are an escape, and I think with where we are as a culture, we need this escape right now. I know I do. But that doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the issues of domestic violence in the game, and it doesn’t mean we have to believe these actions and comments are acceptable to enjoy the sport. Until the Yankees are teaching sexual violence sensitivity and the culture of consent instead of inviting abusers into camp, and until members of the organization either keep their mouths shut or say something more tactful on domestic violence, or until the media stops putting domestic violence in puff pieces, this problem will continue. We can all be better.