When Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to terms on a new domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse policy last August, it was clear that the first few cases to arise under the new agreement would take on heightened importance. As I noted at the time, under the agreement MLB and the union agreed that any past suspension — or lack thereof — for an act of domestic violence would not serve as a precedent in any future cases arising under the new policy. Instead, the initial suspensions handed out by Commissioner Manfred under the agreement would establish a new baseline against which the fairness of any future punishment would be judged.
As a result, Tuesday’s news that MLB had officially suspended Aroldis Chapman for the first 30 games of the 2016 season established a significant milestone, marking the first case in which a player has been suspended without pay under baseball’s new domestic violence agreement. This is all the more noteworthy considering that Chapman was never actually charged for the incident that led to his suspension. Although baseball’s new policy clearly permits MLB to punish players in cases that do not result in criminal prosecution, it wasn’t clear to what extent the league would be willing to suspend someone for an incident that did not result in the player being charged with a crime.
Further, because Chapman declared shortly after his suspension was announced on Tuesday that he would not be appealing the punishment, MLB has avoided the possibility that the 30-game suspension could be overturned by an arbitrator, creating an immediate precedent for future cases.
Although it was not originally announced as such, the fact that Chapman was willing to accept his punishment without a fight — after less than two weeks ago having vowed to appeal any suspension — strongly suggested that MLB and the players union had negotiated the length of the suspension before it was announced, a fact that the New York Times confirmed last night. Indeed, considering the precedent-setting nature of Chapman’s case, the MLBPA would have almost certainly appealed any suspension that it viewed as being overly punitive in order to avoid setting an adverse precedent for future cases in which a player is accused of — but not charged with — an act of domestic violence.
Moreover, because any suspension of 45 or more games would have prevented Chapman from reaching free agency after the 2016 — preventing him from accruing a full six-plus years of service time this season — Chapman himself would have been strongly motivated to appeal any suspension of a significantly longer duration, even if the union did not support the move.
Thus, in many respects, it made sense for all involved to reach some sort of agreement on Chapman’s ultimate suspension. From MLB’s perspective, even if Manfred may have ideally preferred to suspend Chapman for a longer period of time, the league nevertheless benefits by avoiding the threat of an appeal and establishing an immediate precedent under its new domestic violence policy. Meanwhile, from the union’s perspective, the MLBPA was able to guarantee that the first precedent set under the new policy was one with which it could live. And from Chapman’s vantage point, he was able to ensure that he would still reach free agency after the upcoming season.
That having been said, the fact that Chapman was suspended for 30 games does not necessarily mean that all future offenders will automatically be subject to a suspension of a similar length. For instance, a player actually convicted of domestic violence might very well face an even more stringent punishment under the league’s policy. Along these lines, if his Jose Reyes were to lose upcoming domestic violence trial in Hawaii, it would not be at all surprising to see him suspended for more than 30 games.
On the other hand, it is also possible that some future players could try to argue that they deserve a lesser punishment than Chapman in light of any potential differences between the facts of their respective cases. For example, Manfred’s statement on Tuesday suggested that a 30-game suspension was particularly warranted in Chapman’s case due to his “use of a firearm and the impact of that behavior on his partner.” Therefore, a player appealing a future punishment could argue that he should be subject to a shorter suspension in a case where no firearm was involved.
Still, though, after Tuesday it is reasonable to assume that most future players accused of domestic violence will likely be facing a suspension of at least 30 games, if not more.
This raises the question of whether a baseline suspension of 30 games is a sufficient punishment for a player who commits an act of domestic violence. One the one hand, when judged in comparison to the way in which MLB punishes players for performance enhancing drug use — which carries a mandatory 80-game suspension for a first offense — one could argue that 30 games isn’t enough for a crime that, unlike PED use, results in the infliction of physical and/or emotional harm on an actual victim.
Similarly, considering that Roberto Hernandez was suspended for 20 games in 2012 for engaging in age and identity fraud, one could also reasonably contend that a 30-game suspension is a comparably insufficient punishment for Chapman, considering that he was accused of choking his girlfriend and shoving her against a wall, before firing off eight rounds in his garage while his girlfriend hid outside in the bushes.
As a point of comparison along these lines, under the National Football League’s recently adopted domestic violence policy, any professional football player who commits an act of domestic violence faces a mandatory six-game suspension — or, 50% longer than the four-game suspension imposed on NFL players for a PED offense. Thus, an NFL player accused of domestic violence will be forced to sit out 37.5% of his team’s regular season games. In contrast, Chapman’s 30-game suspension represents only around 18.5% of the MLB season.
At the same time, however, Chapman’s suspension does represent a substantial change in MLB’s handling of domestic violence cases. Considering that, until now, the league has never seriously punished a player for engaging in an act of domestic violence, the fact that MLB has established a new baseline of a 30-game suspension is not insignificant.
All in all, then, even if some would have undoubtedly liked to see the league go even further, Tuesday’s suspension of Aroldis Chapman sends an important message to MLB players: anyone engaging in an act of domestic violence in the future can expect to face a suspension of at least 30 games, if not longer.
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