The joys of being an engaged modern sports fan range from recapturing a childlike sense of wonder to feeling included on all sorts of weird and wonderful inside jokes. All it takes is a commitment to being well read on topics ranging from sabermetrics to snapbacks and a keen appreciation for defensive schemes and coaching trees. A willingness to engage in some light social media obsession is always a bonus; a refusal to ever stop wearing a haggard, occasionally lucky jersey is also a plus.
Knowing how to watch All-22 footage can elevate the game of football. Knowing how to make office small talk about walk-off homers can open doors. Increasingly, however, being up to date on athletics means sounding less like the guy at the end of the bar and more like a paralegal. The ESPN news ticker sometimes feels like it contains as many flashes about depositions and appeals and pending criminal charges as it does injuries or trades. These days, the educated sports fan is forced to keep one eye on box scores and one eye on police incident reports.
At least, that’s been my recent experience, because of the four teams I love most, three currently employ athletes whose careers have been beset by legal problems. Derrick Rose’s offseason trade to the Knicks had the potential upside of rejuvenating a player who’d produced a briefly brilliant but mostly fitful career. Josh Brown has missed only one field goal attempt this season for the New York Giants. José Reyes’s return to the Mets, with whom he began his career in 2003, might have been a charming comeback tale, particularly as the team surged to a wild-card spot this fall. Within the past two years, however, all three have been accused of committing violent acts toward women.
Professional athletes were quick to protest when Donald Trump termed his handsy Billy Bush braggadocio mere “locker room talk.” But while they may have had a point that their locker rooms are probably not quite so explicit, the fact remains that most of those clubhouses still house all kinds of uncomfortable truths. Some are important, and largely misunderstood — recently no less an authority than Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg weighed in on Colin Kaepernick’s protest and declared it “dumb and disrespectful,” comments she later retracted. But others are dismaying, and depressing, and increasingly inescapable.
On Wednesday, in a Los Angeles civil court, Rose was found not liable for a range of claims, including sexual battery, stemming from an August 2013 encounter with a woman with whom Rose had had a previous relationship. She accused Rose and two others of taking turns raping her while she lay drunk, possibly drugged, and passed out. The men described it as consensual. The jury of six women and two men voted unanimously in Rose’s favor.
After the verdict was read, a few jurors posed for photos with the smiley Knick and his lawyer, Mark Baute. Another attorney, representing the other defendants, complained in early October that the plaintiff was spending too much time in tears during her testimony. Some jurors later remarked that they wanted to believe the accuser, but that she simply hadn’t convinced them of her version of events. Joakim Noah, who played with Rose on the Bulls and signed with the Knicks this summer, was asked about it after a recent preseason game. “We didn’t have a point guard for all of preseason,” he said. “All because of a girl who was trying to make money off my friends.”
Shortly after the Rose verdict was announced, new information came out regarding Brown. In May 2015, Brown had been arrested in Washington state on a domestic violence charge — at the time, his then-wife, Molly, told police of more than 20 instances of abuse — and the NFL, upon finding out about it this summer, suspended him for one game for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. “A lot of times there’s a tendency to try to make these cases black and white,” Giants co-owner John Mara said in late August. “They are very rarely black and white. You very rarely have a Ray Rice video.”
Should anyone need one, though? There’s no question that we respond most strongly to clear evidence — the Ray Rice video, the police brutality footage, the Access Hollywood tape. But those are rare, and one of the most complicated things about domestic violence or sexual assault cases is that they feel like zero-sum games. If someone is innocent until proven guilty, then it follows that someone else must be lying until they’ve come up with proof. The high-profile examples of actual deception on the part of an accuser — Duke Lacrosse, the recent retracted Rolling Stone piece about an alleged fraternity gang rape at UVA — only heighten the instinct to disbelieve. “In hindsight, were we too sensitive?” asked a Rolling Stone lawyer the other day during a defamation trial related to the UVA story. The defense attorney was referring to the level of trust the magazine’s editors had placed in their main source’s story. “Yes, we were.”
But the new information related to Brown’s arrest was pretty close to being black-and-white. Police released evidence including Brown’s personal journals and email correspondence, many of which were written between 2013 and 2014. Some of the content, like a “Contract for Change,” seemed to be part of therapy. Other sections were more raw. “I made selfish decisions to use and abuse women starting at the age of seven to fill [a] void,” Brown wrote in the documents. “I objectified women and never really worried about the pain and hurt I caused them. … I became an abuser and hurt Molly physically, emotionally, and verbally. I viewed myself as God basically and she was my slave.”
By the time the third and final presidential debate kicked off hours later with Trump’s description of ripping babies out of wombs, then culminated with his hissing “such a nasty woman,” the ugly comments just kind of blended into the day’s news.
“Can bad people create good art?” asked New York Times critic Chip McGrath in 2012, reciting an age-old thought experiment that acknowledges that some of the world’s most creative and innovative minds were no angels. Degas and Wagner were anti-Semites; Norman Mailer tried to kill a wife; Charles Dickens lived down to the first syllable of his surname. And let’s be clear: Josh Brown certainly is no T.S. Eliot. But others may not be too far off.
Baseball statistician Dan Brooks recently suggested that, in terms of standard deviations from the mean, Aroldis Chapman’s heat down the middle is more extraordinary than Stephen Hawking’s intellect. It’s why the Chicago Cubs decided to acquire him in July in a push for their first World Series victory since 1908. The move has paid off, and there’s a good chance that, should the Cubs win a World Series, Chapman would be the first player the cameras zoom in on as he gets that final out.
In March, Chapman was the first player suspended under MLB’s domestic violence policy, given a 30-game punishment despite not having been arrested or charged with any crimes. During a birthday party for a friend at his house in Davie, Florida, in October, Chapman and his girlfriend, Cristina Barnea, reportedly got into a heated exchange over text messages she found on his phone. The argument reportedly escalated, and while Chapman denies that he choked Barnea (who later called police while cowering outside in the bushes) and pushed her against a wall, he admits to locking himself in his garage and shooting off his handgun at random. According to Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz, because he was inside his own property, was not seen firing the weapon, and was not aiming at anyone in particular, this was legal by Florida law. And because Barnea’s version of events later shifted to sync with Chapman’s (in which she entered his personal space, he poked her with a couple of fingers, and she lost her balance over a chair), no charges were filed. A planned trade to the Dodgers fell through, Chapman wound up excelling for the Yankees after serving his suspension, and following his trade deadline move to Chicago — “we’ve all been less than perfect” was how manager Joe Maddon summed up his new acquisition in late July — he now serves up complicated moments of relief at 100 miles per hour.
The details of these situations are so often similar, from their circumstances to their resolutions to their lasting effects. Like Chapman, Reyes was also accused of manhandling a woman by the neck — in this case his wife, Katherine, against a sliding glass door, in a Maui hotel, like some sick game of Clue. Charges against him were dropped and he was suspended by MLB for 51 games. As a young Met stretching hits into triples, Reyes was one of the most joyful guys around, and his abandon was contagious. But what was once sweet has soured. Rooting for a closer like Chapman is always an intense, visceral experience, but now it has a new edge. Every glare and sneer serves as a tiny reminder.
Still, it’s difficult to lump all these disparate issues together and draw sweeping conclusions, because each instance stands so very alone. Some accusations begin with criminal charges; others end in undisclosed civil settlements. Some leagues have the ability, based on their own investigations, to suspend players who haven’t gotten in legal trouble. Others require certain triggers, like a guilty plea, to be able to act. No matter what powers are outlined in the collective bargaining agreements, leagues are in a tricky and fraught position. Having lots of authority runs the risk of a league appearing — or becoming — too responsible for its players, too required to act. Having little leeway to respond scans as impotent and weak and has a way of letting uncomfortable situations fester. The uncertainties and irregularities are damaging to players, offensive to fans, and devastating for victims.
Chapman’s combination of dominance, visibility, and backstory makes him an odd figure within the affable Cubs organization. More than one group of fans has coped with the situation by making contributions to domestic violence organizations for every Chapman save. I understand the strange feeling. It isn’t just the awkwardness of seeing Reyes hit a home run and not knowing if it’s OK to be happy. It isn’t just the relief of seeing the U.S. women’s national soccer team win a World Cup game without needing heroics from Hope Solo. It isn’t just the preemptive annoyance of knowing someone is going to bring up Duke Lacrosse any time a woman makes an accusation. It isn’t just related to sports.
It’s having your own sweet mom wonder skeptically why Trump’s accusers didn’t come forward sooner if they’re telling the truth. It’s loving the movie Straight Outta Compton and then reading about the parts it left out. It’s seeing a musician you love having to deal with the horror of false accusations. It’s hearing the Cubs PA system play “Smack My Bitch Up” when Chapman exited a game. (The employee who “unintentionally” did so was later fired.) It’s going through a day like Wednesday, with its Rolling Stone trial and its Derrick Rose verdict and, between the two of them, the phrase “gang rape” everywhere. It’s the chilling words Brown wrote in his journal and the face Donald Trump made after he said “nasty woman.”
You can pick these things apart separately, and decide what is and isn’t valid. But when they come at you this fast, and from every direction, it’s hard not to allow everything to start piling up and weighing you down. One or two ants are easy to deal with, but there are never just one or two ants. And the worst thing about discovering an infestation is knowing that you lived among it, unaware, for so long. After Trump made his “locker room” comments, poet and radical feminist Eileen Myles — on whom the character of Leslie Mackinaw in Transparent is based — said of his phrasing, “that’s just another name for patriarchy.”
Rose will now be back in the Knicks locker room, having been found not liable by a jury of mostly women. And yet it’s still going to be difficult to fully embrace him as a Knick. That may not be fair, but it’s also not fair to be expected to forget Rose’s “we men” exchange. With luck, the increased visibility of these sorts of cases will eventually reduce their frequency. But nothing about it is pretty in the meantime, and it turns sports — an alleged distraction, a way to tune out, a supposedly healthy outlet for athletes and their fans — into one more unattractive reflection of the surrounding society.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to escape the dark shadow of violence and abuse. Trying to remain ignorant to everything that happens off the playing field or beyond the movie set doesn’t really work anymore, and it reeks of privilege. At the same time, there used to be social utility in occasionally being able to escape. The Times’s McGrath quotes Walter Benjamin: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” If sports are basically just elegantly choreographed piles of barbarism to begin with, what is at the base of that?
“Best wishes,” Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said to Rose after the verdict had been read. “Except when the Knicks play the Lakers.” Joked just like a true modern sports fan.