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Can You Root for a Team Whose Star Was Accused of Domestic Violence?

Sports teams insist they care about their female fans—unless there’s a championship on the line

On Wednesday night, the Chicago Cubs sent their new closer, Aroldis Chapman, to the mound to finish a game that was already more or less finished. Leading the White Sox by seven runs, manager Joe Maddon decided to have Chapman come out for the ninth inning anyway — a move made out of unalloyed hatred for the Cubs’ crosstown rival, or to appease a capacity crowd, or both.

As expected, Chapman fired off 15 blistering pitches — 13 of which topped 100 mph — and retired each batter he faced. Just 48 hours earlier, Chapman’s arrival to Chicago — via a trade with the New York Yankees — had been met with broad criticism, but by the end of the night, no one in attendance seemed bothered by his presence on the team. Fans held their breath to see the speed Chapman’s pitches registered on the stadium radar gun. And they cheered loudly for him — the type of cheers reserved for the sort of players they can pin their championship dreams on. Said a fellow Cubs pitcher on Chapman’s arrival: “It’s a huge lift for everyone.”

There’s a good reason why that’s the case: Chapman is probably the best closer in modern baseball because he can throw a baseball faster than anyone in baseball history.

But there’s also a good reason why maybe it shouldn’t be the case: Last October, Chapman allegedly choked his girlfriend, Cristina Barnea. As she tried to hide, he grabbed a gun and shot it eight times at a wall inside a garage — maybe to scare her, maybe more. When asked about the incident afterward, Chapman said Barnea fell down to the ground because he had poked her — he stressed that he “did not in any way harm” her, though; then he apologized, but only for the part where he shot his gun for a reason that remains undetermined. Chapman was never charged, but he got suspended 30 games to start the season anyway. He did not appeal the suspension.

The Cubs have not won a championship in 108 years. They’re currently in first place, and most sportswriters thought the only thing standing between them and their first championship since 1908 was a dominant closer. Now, they employ one of the best such players ever at that position.

Cubs management, of course, isn’t paid to be the moral avatar for the team’s fans or the city of Chicago; they make decisions in a baseball vacuum. This is how most sports teams operate. But that’s not what the Cubs would have you believe. “I don’t feel like we compromised integrity in making this move,” General Manager Theo Epstein said this week. “We wanted to make sure we preserved our integrity as an organization if we decided to go forward with the trade.” All the while, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, without apparent irony, wanted it to be known that he’s still staunchly opposed to domestic violence (when, presumably, it doesn’t involve members of his team). “My family, this team and Major League Baseball take the issue of domestic violence very seriously and support efforts to reduce domestic violence through education, awareness and intervention,” he offered at the end of his statement regarding the Cubs’ acquisition of Chapman.

Like MLB at large, the Cubs mostly care about optics; they want fans to feel as if they value women and the victims of domestic abuse, even if their actions suggest otherwise. For years, teams and fans have looked the other way on players who’ve committed unsavory crimes as long as they’ve been successful on the field, but in the current climate, fans have at least become slightly more woke and and more sympathetic to the victims. For example, the AP wire story on Chapman’s acquisition read, “Reaction to Chapman’s acquisition in Chicago has been tepid. While there were supportive fans on talk radio, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page column criticizing the move. Similarly, the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times read ‘Spin City’ over a picture of Epstein.”

We forgive athletes for some pretty despicable things (see: Vick, Michael), but domestic violence is the toughest to scrub from our collective memory. “All domestic violence incidents are serious, but choking — attempted strangulation — is even more serious,” Keith Law wrote last month. Law is arguably baseball’s foremost intellectual on matters pertaining to both baseball and its intersection with social issues — a George Will who isn’t a romantic blowhard, and someone who has pioneered a new way to think about baseball, on and off the field. Here Law was referring to New York Mets infielder Jose Reyes, who like Chapman, was suspended to start the season after being accused of domestic abuse in the offseason. He continued: “[Strangulation is] a direct assertion of power and intimidation over the victim, and women whose partners try to strangle or choke them are seven times more likely than other abuse victims to be killed by their partners.”

Almost a month to the day of that piece, Law opined on the Chapman trade: “I’m on record as opposing any team’s decision to acquire and pay a player with a domestic violence incident in his past, especially his recent past. When a team acquires such a player, it says they prioritize the value he provides on the field and the potential to win another game or two over the lives and health of women — the victims of these players — and the women in their fan base in general… This is a moral choice, not a baseball one, a move that tells everyone what you stand for as an organization.”

But as is generally the case, talent trumps all. It’s why Reyes is still active in the majors — re-signed by the Mets after his previous team, the Colorado Rockies, had released him (more or less) on account of his suspension for domestic violence. Sara Novic, an author and Mets fan, wrote about the issue beautifully for Baseball Prospectus recently:

“To me, the Mets’ handling of Reyes’ return has been perhaps even more disappointing than their decision to re-sign him in the first place. At the very least Reyes should have had to start from a place that demonstrated contrition and humility, the very qualities a person lacks when he commits a violent assault against another person.

“What are we actually requiring of people who play in the MLB? We can say all that matters is a player’s actions during his allotted time on the field, but our own actions as fans suggest something different. If baseball was just about a specific set of physical skills and the points gained or lost because of them, we’d likely interact with the game much differently, perhaps like we do a lottery ticket — in passing, results-oriented. But baseball fans root for specific players and teams; we buy hats and jerseys and wear their names on our backs.”

It’s difficult to untether one’s feelings for an individual team from the players it employs. At the same time however, there’s no single way to go about rooting for your team — especially when said team is harboring a player whose actions are diametrically opposed to your own views. And so fans are left to decide for themselves how to cheer on their teams. But judging by the raucous support for Chapman Wednesday night, it would appear that navigating the line between fair and foul in these situations is as difficult for those in the stands as it is for the people in charge.

Two months before the 1995 playoffs, the first-place Atlanta Braves traded a minor-leaguer to the Yankees in exchange for veteran outfielder Luis Polonia, who six years before had been convicted and jailed for having sex with a 15-year-old girl, and five years before, had been accused of slapping a teenaged fan for heckling him about his crime. The Braves were already 14 games up in their division and a favorite to win the World Series regardless of their trading for Polonia, but they did it anyway, figuring that Polonia — a speedy lefty and defensive wizard — might help them down the stretch. Said Braves manager, Bobby Cox at the time: “I wanted Luis forever. We were tickled pink to get him.”

There wasn’t much of an uproar from Braves fans at the time, perhaps because a few years had passed since Polonia’s crimes, or perhaps because in 1995 times were different enough that Polonia’s victim wasn’t worthy of mass outcry. Braves management obviously didn’t mind; perhaps they, like the Cubs with Chapman, figured that once Polonia contributed to the Braves’ bid for a title, any upset fans would forgive the team for employing a rapist. And Polonia did contribute in the World Series — he scored three runs and drove in four more to help the Braves beat the Cleveland Indians, the team’s first championship in 48 years.

Chapman and Polonia differ in that Polonia was a platoon outfielder who came up big in spots, but never the spot. And if the dream scenario plays out for the Cubs — a game at Wrigley Field with a chance to clinch a World Series title — in all likelihood, it’ll be Chapman throwing the decisive pitch. For Cubs fans who’ve waited decades for that moment, it’ll be a hell of a trade-off to make. They’ll be forced to wonder what their rooting for the Cubs means for their own views on domestic violence. Because by cheering on the Cubs, ipso facto, they’re cheering on Aroldis Chapman.

Is reveling in your team’s championship run worth your soul? Maybe, maybe not. And the same question — of being forced to choose between your team and your principles — is bound to dog sports fans for quite a while. I’m a cynic on this matter. You can look at the examples of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, and assume that teams, leagues and fans alike are starting to take a hard stance when it comes to domestic violence. But then you realize that Ray Rice and Greg Hardy stopped being valuable on the field a while ago. If Ray Rice were Todd Gurley, and Greg Hardy were Von Miller, both would be on teams right now.

There is, however, some solace Cubs fans can take in all of this: These moral trade-offs have been going on for so long, at such a high clip, that we end up forgetting about them. Case in point: If you followed baseball, you likely knew the Braves won the 1995 World Series, but you probably had no idea who the fuck Luis Polonia was.