Major League Baseball has suspended Cubs shortstop Addison Russell 40 games for violating the league’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. In 2017, Russell’s now ex-wife, Melisa Reidy-Russell, said in a since-deleted Instagram post that she was leaving her husband because of his infidelity. In a separate post, a commenter—described by Reidy-Russell as a close friend—said the Cubs shortstop had been not only unfaithful but abusive. MLB began an investigation then, but didn’t take disciplinary action at the time.
Two weeks ago, Reidy-Russell wrote a blog post detailing the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse she’d suffered, and the league placed Russell on administrative leave, pending further investigation. Russell proclaimed his innocence in a statement when he was placed on leave but will not appeal the suspension.
The details of the suspension aren’t the important part of this case. In fact, this process is so common that it’s taken on a tragic roteness. The 40-game ban—which is retroactive to the start of Russell’s time on administrative leave, September 21—will invite comments about how MLB punishes first-time PED violations more harshly than players suspended under its domestic violence policy. It also raises questions about how Russell’s case is different from that of Astros closer Roberto Osuna, who earned a 75-game suspension—does MLB believe that there’s some sort of graduated scale of badness for intimate partner violence?
We’ll talk about whether letting Russell back into baseball trivializes Reidy-Russell’s suffering, or that of fans who have themselves been abused. And those fans are more numerous than most people realize; according to the CDC, about one in four women and one in seven men experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Many fans will register their outrage at the Cubs and Major League Baseball for allowing Russell back next spring. Even in the face of evidence that a zero-tolerance domestic violence policy would decrease reporting and endanger victims, a 40-game suspension feels insufficient.
The anger over the inadequate suspension is both understandable and to the benefit of the game, its players, and society as a whole—as frustrating as MLB’s handling of cases like Russell’s can be, the league is only as proactive as it is because covering up violence against women (however clumsily it’s done) is a bigger PR problem than confronting the issue.
The truth is, MLB will never come up with a satisfactory domestic violence punishment structure because it’s an entertainment company that’s had a comprehensive societal failure fall into its lap. As long as men assault women, and as long as our society reflexively protects the powerful, Major League Baseball will be unable to punish those transgressions in a way that satisfies both the need for education and compassion among the public and the desire to punish people who do evil things.
Ideally, this would be the province of the legal system, but domestic violence cases are hard to prosecute because they require the victim to come forward and tell their side of the story—which is humiliating under the best of circumstances, and frequently dangerous or impossible. Even reporting abuse is difficult—law enforcement officers, who themselves commit domestic violence at a rate at least twice that of the general population, can be unsympathetic, and even if law enforcement pursues the case, it can mean breaking up a marriage or a family.
Russell will return to baseball and carry the stigma of an abuser, at least for a while. The Colorado Rockies jettisoned José Reyes after his own domestic violence suspension in 2016, and the Mets picked the four-time All-Star up and paraded him around like a beloved returning son for two and a half years. Some Cubs fans will view this whole business as an inconvenience or a conspiracy against their favorite team. Some opposing fans will use it as banter, proof that their team is more righteous and that the Cubs are The Bad Guys, which might be worse. Don’t bother waiting for retributive justice—we’ve been down this road too many times to hold out hope that it’s coming.
But in one crucial respect, this case is different from most other domestic violence cases: MLB renewed its investigation because Reidy-Russell came forward and told her side of the story, which very rarely happens; she told the story in her own words in a blog post and again a week later in an interview with Jesse Rogers of ESPN.
It’s not fair expect this of all survivors. Recounting such a traumatic story, even in confidence to a friend or a therapist, requires confronting incredibly unsettling emotions and memories. Sharing it with the world takes phenomenal courage. And as much as laying this story out for public consumption might help Reidy-Russell heal, it comes at a cost. Reidy-Russell’s post from two weeks ago is the only thing on her site, and whatever else she does, she’ll be remembered for something she suffered rather than anything she did.
We should be grateful that Reidy-Russell chose to be so candid, because her post and her comments to Rogers are an incredible account of what it’s like to be battered and gaslighted by someone you love, and what it does to you. Read them and you’ll begin to understand that she suffered not just physical abuse and emotional manipulation, but a profound betrayal of trust—and why that distinction is important. Then read the 2015 Sports Illustrated article by Michael McKnight and L. Jon Wertheim on how former big league outfielder Milton Bradley terrorized his late wife, Monique, over the course of a decade. Then read this Q&A in The Athletic between Cubs beat reporter Sahadev Sharma and author and journalist Jessica Luther, who’s reported extensively on violence against women in sports, on how sportswriters can report on domestic violence more thoughtfully and what “asking the right questions” even means.
In the absence of adequate retributive justice from the league or the law, we can count only on our own individual ability to learn and affect change. To change the way we talk, or think, what questions we ask as reporters or what jokes we make among friends—or allow others to make. To demand more from team and league executives. Or to make a difference directly; for instance, when the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, some fans pledged per-save donations to organizations that helped survivors of domestic violence.
Feeling good isn’t an option. But doing better is.