With today’s deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players, the Cubs have taken what Theo Epstein calls a “procedural step” in tendering a (non-guaranteed) contract to beleaguered shortstop Addison Russell.
Clearly this was one of the biggest off-season decisions for the Cubs, and the criticism that follows is both necessary and well deserved. Even if Russell never plays another inning for the Cubs there is much to be gleaned from this decision, and it begins with the joint statements released by both player and team:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) November 30, 2018
Can we actually believe Russell’s words?
Addison spent over a year lying to the Cubs and MLB about his abusive behavior. Russell was able to escape punishment while maintaining his innocence, partially because the initial accusation surfaced from an indirect source via social media, and certainly because his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, declined to cooperate with the investigation that followed. He fooled his teammates, coaches, fans, the front office and ownership, all while defaming Reidy in preemptive fashion. That grotesque behavior must be taken into account regarding the Cubs’ ultimate decision with Russell.
(It’s important to note that Melisa Reidy’s choice to stay silent was her prerogative, and any criticism of the timing in which she came out publicly with her experience is victim blaming. For broader context regarding the abuse she endured, The Athletic’s Katie Strang interviewed Reidy with sensitivity in early October. You can read that piece (subscription required) here.
Russell’s behavior was calculated, cold, and tone-deaf. He was power-hungry, abusive, and brazenly selfish with zero regard toward the health, safety, and well-being of his former partner. And now, two months after his initial suspension, the Cubs offer him a contract at the last possible minute. Is the public expected to accept his written apology?
In the above statement Russell says “I accepted my suspension and did not appeal. I am responsible for my actions.” Claiming these to be his first steps is ridiculous, hollow, and inaccurate. Indeed, Addison’s first course of action was flat denial, and until today we didn’t so much hear any sort of apology. Not to his teammates, the Cubs organization or its fans, and most importantly, no direct public apology to Melisa Reidy.
It’s nearly impossible at this stage to believe he is remorseful. His initial words offer a “heartfelt apology” in a legalistic tone. Such a tone is on a public relations bingo card: a required trait of an apology made public. Clearly I can’t speak to Russell’s heart, but based on previous actions and behavior it seems likelier he feels apologetic this ever became publicly scrutinized, and until he proves otherwise that’s the interpretation I can’t let go of.
Abusers, however disgusting their actions are, can in fact be redeemed. There is some potential good to be gleaned from Russell’s words — that is, if he follows through with the substance of his statement. Should he successfully complete therapy there is hope, however dim, that he could “become part of the solution” by dedicating his time, energy, and financial resources to non-profits that work tirelessly to combat domestic violence. That said, it’s a baseline step toward redemption, not the end in itself.
In the immediate aftermath of Melisa Reidy’s accusations I called for the Cubs to cut ties with Russell. That view hasn’t changed. Consequences for his abusive behavior — and the lies that followed — merit a much stronger punishment than 40 games without pay.
Russell could prove worthy of redemption, but that is going to take much more time than his suspension allows. This is now a lifetime effort, not one to be made until the spotlight shines elsewhere.
Dissecting Theo’s Convoluted Statement
Epstein’s statement, released jointly with Russell’s, is at once believable while also being open-ended to the point of exhaustion. The first instance happens with a supposedly rhetorical question: “If we’re willing to accept credit when a member of our organization succeeds on the field, what should we do if he engages in conduct off the field worthy of discipline from Major League Baseball?”
Tying these two together is perplexing at best. I get that Theo has demonstrated a sincerity throughout this process, believing that this front office must be part of the solution to ending domestic violence. That sincerity includes (in Theo’s mind) supporting Russell, providing structure and the opportunity to prove he will change for the better.
That said, the claim that acceptance of a player’s on-field accomplishments requires sticking with said player when they commit heinous crimes is absurd. Theo’s dedication to ending domestic violence is laudable. What’s not so laudable is an inability to detach the organization from a player who has committed such acts.
Theo’s statement also strains to note that Addison “proactively” sought out therapy on top of what MLB has dictated. This mention pushes the narrative that Russell is remorseful and committed to changing, a narrative so far from being a foregone conclusion that its mere mentioning is painful to read. This is going to be a long, long road for Addison, and painting a picture that he’s already on the right track (after spending so much time in denial) is irresponsible.
What does ring positive from Theo, however, is the admission that tendering a contract to Russell neither represents the “…finish line nor rubber stamp[s] his future as a Cub.” The important distinction he is making publicly is that there is no guarantee Russell will ever again play for the Cubs. Anything short of absolute change from Russell should signal his dismissal from the organization, and the fan base is obligated to hold the front office accountable.
The Cubs are attempting to walk a tight-rope between acknowledging the abhorrence of domestic violence while being committed to rehabilitating a chronic abuser. This is a dangerous approach. The organization as a whole as well as Theo Epstein’s legacy are tied to a flawless follow-up to the words echoed today. Perhaps the intentions are genuine; it’s just as likely the Cubs have gravely miscalculated, and we’re to the point of no return.
The blessing of a second chance shouldn’t come so quick and easy. If that happens, both MLB generally and the Cubs organization specifically should be ashamed. I’m not saying Addison should never again be allowed to play baseball, but 1) it shouldn’t be as a Cub and 2) should only happen if there’s verifiable proof he’s both changed and committed to changing the culture of abuse and toxic masculinity. Neither of those things will be known by the time his suspension is up.
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