Is Addison Russell Above the Fray?

If winning the World Series with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 was his high point, then shortstop Addison Russell’s new low might have been accepting a 40-game suspension without pay for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy barely two years later.

Despite not playing for almost the first quarter of the 2019 season, since accepting his suspension Russell has started to see the prospects for his future tick up again. On November 30, the Cubs renewed his contract, though the front office maintains that his future with the ball club is uncertain. The team was facing a league-wide deadline to offer spots to unsigned players on their 40-man rosters.

In September, Russell’s ex-wife Melisa Reidy made public her allegations of domestic abuse. The MLB opened an investigation, forcing Russell to sit out the final 11 games of the 2018 season. The former All-Star has not publicly admitted that the allegations are true, but has issued an apology for “past behavior” and says he is thinking about “the next steps [he] need[s] to take to grow as a person.”

The Cubs’ decision to renew Russell’s contract will surely be met with resistance, especially from fans who called for his release immediately after he was suspended on October 3. But Scott Boras, Russell’s agent, seemed confident the 24-year-old would remain with the Cubs, saying last month that “the team is clearly in line and directly involved with Addison, and I have no expectation otherwise.” Russell has been participating a treatment program focused on rehabilitation and counseling.

But should Russell have ever even worried that his future in the big leagues, nonetheless with the Cubs, was in jeopardy? This question is fraught. Even Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, tried to dodge it. Doing so, he alluded to Russell’s future with team, saying “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?” Epstein reiterated that the Cubs are committing more resources to training on the topic and are focused on showing fans that the organization “takes the issue of domestic violence seriously.”

But when will professional leagues and teams across sports begin to prove to fans that they too take domestic violence seriously? When will the “Me Too” movement hit professional sports? Some say it should have come in 2014, when Ray Rice of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens was indicted on charges of third-degree aggravated assault against his then-fiancée. Rice hasn’t played a down since, but on the same day Russell’s contract was renewed, the Kansas City Chiefs released start running back Kareem Hunt after a video surfaced showing him attacking a woman in February.

Across professional sports, the problem of addressing abuse, assault, and violence remains unsolved. In August 2015, the MLB set into stone its current policy. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players’ Association, said the league’s goals was “to set an example that makes clear that there is no place for domestic abuse in our society.” But does Russell’s renewed contract represent a reversal of this idea? Many would argue that it does, as any other man who commits a known act of domestic violence surely loses his job. But others might use the evidence Boras and Epstein presented, focusing more on Russell’s determination “to address things and move forward.”

Russell isn’t the only player to sit out games this past season for violating the joint policy on domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. Houston Astros’ closer Roberto Osuna served 75 games, rejoining teammates on the filed in August. Osuna and now Russell have both participated in programming aimed at preventing future violations, but hoping attrition remains low is hardly the best plan. Until the MLB and other leagues realize this, professional athletes will continue to receive second chances that seemed reserved for only for them.

Sources: LA Times, Chicago Tribune (Contract, Addison Russell), MLB