By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “Perfect” isn’t a word that should be applied to handling an incident of alleged domestic violence. There’s nothing perfect about such a situation. There’s no “right way” to go about it, as these cases individually and the issue of domestic violence are complicated and delicate.
Intersect that with men’s sports, and it usually get a lot clunkier. Our high-level athletes are usually ill-equipped to speak on these matters, a failing of their employers and leagues in the 21st century, and not a year goes by that we don’t witness at least one example of an athlete accused of violence against a woman that gets discussed ham-fistedly by teammates, coaches and even the media that’s supposed to be properly surgical.
All that considered, the Chicago Cubs so far have publicly handled the Addison Russell situation about as well as can be asked. Major League Baseball is currently looking into a domestic violence accusation against Russell made by someone in a comment on a since-deleted Instagram post by Russell’s wife, Melisa, on Wednesday night. Investigations of domestic violence and potential penalties are at the discretion of the MLB commissioner’s office. Russell has denied the allegation, calling it “false and hurtful.”
Last season during their run to a World Series championship, the Cubs acquired closer Aroldis Chapman a few months after he’d completed a 30-game suspension following a league investigation into allegations that Chapman had choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots in a garage. The trade tainted the good feelings going on at the time, as the Cubs were actively choosing to go out and get a determined violator of league domestic violence policy in favor of winning games. The public discussions by members of the organization didn’t help matters. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein mentioned that the team’s integrity hadn’t been compromised. Owner Tom Ricketts used the false ethos of personally speaking with Chapman about high expectations going forward. Manager Joe Maddon — the supposed progressive humanist of the bunch — minimized it with, “We’ve all be less than perfect.”
It was pretty bad PR. An otherwise smooth organization did a poor job of sugaring over the devil we already knew, and those of us with some decency would’ve at least preferred they confront the dark reality of major sports — it contains bad people that help teams win games.
At least the Cubs seem to have learned from the negative feedback of the brief-but-reverberating Chapman era. First and foremost, not letting Russell be around Thursday’s game sent a message that the Cubs understand that visuals matter. Russell is active for Friday’s game, but keeping him away whatsoever is important. Even if that decision was specifically Russell-centric to let him deal with his personal life and/or keep him away from media, the public needs to see more absences of accused violent figures from fields and benches even while investigations are in their infancies so that it’s not all one big shrug emoji. The idea that this is premature punishment ignores potential victims, as we who put sports above real people are wont to do.
“Given the serious allegations, we just felt like the right thing to do for Addison was to ask him to stay away from the team today,” general manager Jed Hoyer told the Bernstein and Goff Show on Thursday. “He has things away from the ballpark that he has to work on, and I think we’ll take that day by day. Obviously he’s got much bigger issues to deal with right now, and we thought it was the right thing to do to ask him to stay home today.”
Hoyer said once the Cubs were aware of the third-party allegation, they immediately got MLB involved, per protocol. He also noted that the team went over the collectively bargained league domestic violence education points with Cubs players and made them aware of what was known at the time while “not scripting” the players’ responses. Then the words from more faces of the organization showed maturation since less than a year ago.
“It’s not a suspension at this time,” Epstein said on Thursday afternoon, but as far as how long Russell will be kept away from the team, he added: “We’re not sure. We’re going to see how the situation develops and how he’s doing. We’ll probably have more for you on that in the coming days.”
Epstein was tactful and lacked coldness toward the situation when speaking to the media while stressing that the team doesn’t know enough to speak on it much.
“Right now this is an allegation by a third party on social media — a serious allegation,” he said. “That’s why we met immediately with Addison. That’s why we referred it immediately to Major League Baseball.
“We just don’t know. There’s not a lot more we can say.”
Epstein noted that the team had reached out to Russell’s wife, Melisa.
“We care about all the parties involved and hope for the best,” he said. “But making any judgment would be inappropriate at this early stage.
“It’s not always just baseball in there. Everybody has a personal life. The real world happens every day. Guys, they know how to deal with it and still play the game.”
As far as the public knows, Russell’s wife has made no accusation to authorities of any wrongdoing (though that is far from a guarantee of no wrongdoing). A third party social media comment shouldn’t be wholly dismissed, but it’s not the stuff of conclusions either.
Maddon was demonstrably better in his comments this time. He showed an attitude Thursday of someone who has learned to consume more than produce when it comes to these matters.
“I sat with (Russell) and Theo and just listened,” Maddon said of their meeting.
He noted that he hasn’t lost confidence in Russell as a player even before this news came to light before returning to more important non-baseball.
“(The team) actually did get together as a group just to make sure everybody was aware of what’s going on,” Maddon said.
“We did get together as a group just so that the guys if they wanted to say or ask anything that they could.”
Maddon stressed more than once how little he knows about it all without being dismissive of the situation. Not knowing — and more importantly not asserting anything — was the theme of Thursday for the Cubs. Overall, that’s about as good as one can hope for from a team.
“All I can really say on it is it’s very unfortunate and I don’t know enough about it,” Kris Bryant told the Bernstein and Goff Show on 670 The Score on Thursday afternoon. “I have no clue on anything about it. I don’t really know what to say about it, but it’s unfortunate.
“It’s a touchy subject. It’s never acceptable. But that’s something Addison is going to have to handle. I’m sure it will be talked about here soon.
“I just want to be a good teammate,” Bryant added. “I don’t know what that entails to (Russell).”
Bryant’s teammates echoed his sentiment of just not knowing right now, and nobody seemed to put his foot in his mouth. On Thursday, the Cubs television broadcast — perhaps most tasked with dealing with the elephant in the room of a multi-hour broadcast immediately not long after the news broke compared to someone doing a few minutes in a media scrum — broached the matter in the top of the second inning and kept the discussion to the facts known at that time and the quotes from Russell and Epstein. Perhaps speaking to our American culture with this broader issue, I saw no talk of Russell on national sports TV shows Thursday afternoon.
Though media surrounding Russell on Friday weren’t all that helpful.
Top to bottom, the Cubs seem to have done as good of a job as we can expect from a subculture that so often handles issues of violence against women very poorly and sends the wrong message. There’s no perfect way to do it — Russell being active for Friday’s game is up for worthy criticism, for example — and “perfect” isn’t really a goal we should be looking for because despite the all-important sports we’re involved with, someone may have been seriously harmed here and to hell with a sports team when it comes to that and congratulating them for not being soulless.
But it’s progress from the Cubs and hopefully other pro teams that will inevitably deal with more situations like this one. Amid the unfortunateness, that’s the best to be hoped for.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.