By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) Two days prior to the start of the MLB season, commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Mets relief pitcher Jeurys Familia under the league’s nascent domestic violence policy. Prior to Familia, MLB had suspended three other players under the policy: Aroldis Chapman, Hector Olivera and Jose Reyes. The three previous suspensions ranged from 30 to 82 games. Familia received a 15-game suspension.
In a statement regarding Familia’s suspension, Manfred credited Familia’s participation in counseling as part of the reason for his relatively light punishment:
“The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016,” Manfred’s statement said. “Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the policy and warrants discipline.
“It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions. Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 90-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type. Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.” (bold emphasis added)
It’s worth noting that despite MLB’s statement, the police officer who initially responded to the incident stated that Familia’s wife “had “visible injuries, specifically a scratch to the chest and bruise to the right cheek.” With Manfred’s statement, it’s clear that Familia’s counseling sessions had a major impact on the length of his sentence. Obviously, aiding a family in crisis should take priority over punishment if MLB is forced to choose. And giving players an incentive to get into counseling quickly and voluntarily after a domestic violence incident takes place is a worthy position for Manfred to take.
However, it’s unclear how counseling is suggested by MLB, whether counseling is mandated and what kind of counseling players undergo. For example, Chapman, who was suspended 30 games by MLB for firing a gun eight times in his garage while his girlfriend and infant were nearby, was evaluated twice by a psychologist and underwent only one counseling session. According to MLB’s statement, Familia — whose domestic incident was far less severe than Chapman’s on its face — underwent 12 90-minute sessions with a counselor prior to the time his suspension was announced. It’s tough to imagine any counselor having any experience with domestic violence would recommend that Chapman undergo only one counseling session.
Of equal concern is the type of counseling players are receiving under the league’s domestic violence policy. While many judges nowadays continue to order those convicted of domestic violence to anger management or, worse, family counseling in an attempt at rehabilitation, such counseling can make violent family situations worse.
Kathleen Doherty, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, says anger management classes do nothing to address the root cause of domestic violence.
“Abusers abuse because they seek to exert power and control specifically over their intimate partner, in any way they can — physically, emotionally, financially, sexually, and psychologically,” Doherty said. “Anger has nothing to do with intimate partner violence.”
“Anger management classes do nothing to address the abuser’s pattern of controlling behavior and abuse,” according to Doherty.
Domestic Violence Legal Clinic of Chicago gained national attention during Chapman’s time in Chicago with a “PitchIn 4 DV” campaign, which earned the organization more than $38,000 by asking Cubs fans to donate $10 for each Chapman save or win. DVLC executive director Margaret Duval echoed Doherty’s statements that the kind of counseling players receive matters.
“We inform our clients that family counseling is more likely to harm than help victims of domestic violence, as the process can inadvertently expose or embarrass the abuser, possibly triggering more abuse,” Duval said. “Moreover, anger management has proven to be ineffective at rehabilitating abusers because most abusers actually are able to control their anger and use it as a tool to maintain power and control.”
For it’s part, MLB’s domestic violence policy includes the following language in regards to counseling:
— The parties have established a Joint Policy Board, comprised of three experts in the field of domestic violence, sexual assault and/or child abuse and two representatives each from the Players Association and the Commissioner’s Office. The Joint Policy Board is responsible for evaluating and, where appropriate, supervising the treatment of a player.
— An expert member of the Joint Policy Board will submit his or her proposed treatment plan to the full board for approval. The expert who prescribed the treatment plan will be responsible for overseeing the player’s compliance with the Plan.
— A player’s treatment plan may require him to submit to psychological evaluations, attend counseling sessions, comply with court orders (including child support orders), relocate from a home shared with his partner, limit his interactions with his partner, relinquish all weapons and other reasonable directives designed to promote the safety of the player’s partner, children or victims.
In fairness, MLB’s domestic violence policy is light years ahead of the other professional sports leagues both on paper and in practice, and its focus on counseling as part of an agreement with a suspended player is admirable. Yet the decisions made around which players are required to undergo counseling and what kind of counseling is recommended is worthy of discussion.
When asked how decisions about counseling are made, an MLB representative said: “Treatment plans are prescribed and approved by the Joint Policy Board following an evaluation of a player who has committed or is alleged to have committed an act of domestic violence. Treatment plans may include psychological evaluations, counseling or other therapeutic sessions or a variety of other prescribed and/or prohibited actions that are recommended by the domestic violence expert who initially evaluated the player.”
Abuser counseling, a specific type of therapy geared toward the perpetrators of domestic violence, typically lasts at least six months, and a survey of domestic violence organizations offering abuser counseling revealed that none had a program lasting fewer than 24 weeks. The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website advises readers that overcoming the learned behavior of abusing can take decades of counseling.
Both Chapman and Familia issued statements at the time of their suspensions denying that they physically harmed their significant others, taking only partial responsibility for their actions. These statements beg the question of how effective whatever counseling players are undergoing actually is, as well as why MLB doesn’t prohibit such statements as part of their suspension agreements with the players. While there are certainly legal considerations in forcing players to admit to domestic violence, there’s no reason MLB can’t force players to stop denying responsibility for the same actions for which they are being suspended. Allowing players to continue to claim they never caused physical harm only perpetuates the narrative of domestic violence victims as liars. It’s a narrative already far too common among sports fans on social media and, regrettably, members of the media.
MLB’s policy states that domestic violence experts are intimately involved in recommending and overseeing any counseling players are mandated to undergo, and psychological evaluations of players are and should remain private. Yet the league should be clearer on why a player like Chapman underwent one counseling session and Familia underwent 12. Better yet, MLB should establish a standard counseling protocol for players under the purview of the policy. Domestic violence experts, doctors and counselors could be free to deviate from the standard protocol as they see fit, but setting a baseline 26-week program for suspended players should be the bare minimum.
And when it comes to releasing statements about player suspensions, MLB itself could use some work on its language. In its statement regarding Familia, the Manfred said, “The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016.”
For the layperson who doesn’t know that well upward of 50 percent of domestic violence victims recant their stories prior to prosecution, MLB’s statement sounds as if the investigation determined Familia never harmed his wife. More likely, Familia and his wife both insisted there was no violence involved, which is incredibly common once legal consequences are on the line. In fact, one study found that 80 to 85 percent of domestic violence victims will recant their accusations at some point.
There’s much to commend for MLB’s handling of domestic abuse by its players thus far. In particular, the league’s decision not to require a criminal conviction in order to punish a player is commendable. But in subjecting its players to discipline under its domestic violence policy, the league should also undertake the educate the general public. More transparency regarding player counseling as well as taking more care with the language that both the league and its players use in prepared statements would go a long way toward creating real change among players and the fan base when it comes to domestic violence.