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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Buying Low On Aroldis Chapman, Or, The Precedent Of Michael Vick

David Pinto passed on an excerpt from a Mike Axisa essay about the Yankees possibly buying low on Aroldis Chapman:
I think it’s pretty gross the Yankees essentially used a domestic violence incident to buy low on a player. That’s how I feel. You’re welcome to feel differently. The Dodgers had a deal in place for Chapman earlier this offseason, then backed away when news of the incident got out. (Here’s the story if you haven’t seen it.) The Reds then dropped their asking price — Brian Cashman confirmed it during a conference call yesterday — and the Yankees swooped in. There are a lot of people out there whose lives have been impacted by domestic violence and I think turning a blind eye to it sends a very bad message. Pro sports teams — it’s not just baseball, it happens in every sport — have shown time and time again they will overlook stuff like this as long as the player is good enough. I’d like to think the Yankees hold themselves to higher standards but it’s clear they don’t. It’s one thing for a player to be a jerk and difficult to get along with. Allegations of domestic violence are much more serious. Not a good look, Yankees.
There are a lot of potential responses to that. A particularly greasy, commercial observation came from (at least) MLB Trade Rumors, when they noticed that if Chapman misses 45 days (the maximum possible for the domestic violence offense he's accused of is 50 days), the Yankees could end up with not one but two years of team control. This means the Yanks might land arguably the best available reliever in baseball at a comparatively bargain price, and on a multiyear deal, no less. (No telling how Chapman might react if it turns up the Yanks schemed to get the commissioner's office to throw the book at him in full force.)

But if Chapman's poor self-control off the field costs him in his contractual matters, it says very little about what sports leagues more generally need to do about domestic violence. One of the bigger off-field cases to come up in recent years was that of the NFL's Michael Vick, which I wrote about at the time. Vick's depravity to dogs, his lack of remorse, and his failure (entirely due to the state prosecutor in the case) to spend a single day in prison on animal cruelty charges led me then to conclude the league had taken inadequate steps to deal with the situation. It did not help that the league itself appeared to be a willing participant in the charade, even going so far as to hand him a farcical Comeback Player of the Year award. From what, exactly, did he come back?

And so with Ray Rice, whose pugilistic elevator exploits had to be broken on TMZ Sports, of all places, presumably because ESPN owes the NFL a great deal. Certainly, the cable giant is not in a position to want to tarnish the NFL's brand; quite the opposite, as Deadspin documented amid arched eyebrows. This pattern of the league covering for an active player — and in the case of Vick, a former (and newly rising) star — seems nothing if not constant.

Largely, the fans have been complicit with such efforts, provided enough time elapses between the observed complaints and the player's reinstatement. Vick continues to play unimpeded, most recently for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but previously for the Philadelphia Eagles a mere two years after his initial suspension due to occupying a jail cell. Ditto Rice, who didn't even have to wait that long after TMZ's release of the surveillance video, winning a reinstatement the same year. Protests have been muted, and have had little lasting effect. Particularly, the league's mealy-mouthed domestic violence policy changes amounted to a nothingball, something Roger Goodell could have implemented on his own had he chosen to do so. While Rice remains for the moment sidelined, it's hard to imagine this state of affairs will last beyond next year, and may not even survive the coming offseason.

Why these things are as they are should be obvious, given the direction of incentives: the player, the team who employs him, and the league more generally do not want bad press. The player presumably is a valuable commodity, someone who can fill a limited number of open positions and do it creditably (or even well); the team is a part of the league, and has some say in its operation; and the league is the captive of its constituent teams. All of which is to say, none of these entities can be relied upon to manage the interests of third parties not subject to contract or for whom liability only weakly attaches. Expecting teams to adjudicate this liability in any way other than for their own benefit is, charitably, naive, and more realistically, a fool's errand. Ultimately, it becomes a test of the fan base's overall sense of disgust with the particular crimes at hand (itself a question of the nature and graphic detail of the publicly available evidence), and the distance in time to them. Those expecting otherwise are like Charlie Brown hoping Lucy will really hold that football this one time, despite all those other times.

And so, I discharge sports leagues from enforcing the criminal laws on their contracted employees. Such work rightfully belongs to the police, and while the Rice case in particular made it evident that municipal gendarmarie are also not immune to the same forces that hushed up the video record of his offense, at least their paychecks come from a source not directly tied to the NFL. That much cannot be said for Roger Goodell or the Baltimore Ravens.

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