As I have written on other occasions, Domestic violence presents a knotty problem for professional-sports leagues. On the one hand, there are two legitimate arguments for why the leagues should not get involved in policing domestic violence. One, domestic violence has nothing to do with the game on the field. It is not like performance-enhancing drugs or gambling, which a sports league cannot disentangle from the integrity of the game itself. Two, policing violent crime is a job for the government — it is, as much as anything, why we have a government. Sports leagues are particularly outside of their competence in wading into the many issues of credibility, intimidation, motivation, proportion, pattern, trauma, and sexuality that can arise in domestic-violence cases. If a friend came to you and said she was being battered by her husband, the last thing you would say is, “I bet the NFL would know what to do in this situation.”
On the other hand, there are three arguments for why the leagues should engage the problem. One, from a cold-blooded business perspective, image matters; fans do not like rooting for wife-beaters. How much of a real dynamic this is, and how much a rationalization, is debatable; fans seem to have no difficulty rooting for winning athletes who treat women like garbage in other ways, such as cheating on their wives, frequenting prostitutes, spreading sexually transmitted diseases, or being deadbeat absentee fathers for their illegitimate children. None of those things are likely to get you fired or banned from a job as a baseball player. Two, leaving things for the government assumes that the government is doing an adequate job, and that is the nub of the issue: We simply do not have a lot of faith that the institutions that are designed for the problem are dealing with it. It would be easier for the leagues to justify saying “the cops and the courts will handle this” if we saw a parade of wealthy young men serving serious jail time for domestic assaults. And three, professional athletes are by nature physically strong, physically aggressive young men. As such, they can present a particular risk of serious, dangerous violence against women.
For now, the leagues have chosen to step in to pick up the slack where the government leaves off. And that means they have to fumble their way toward a process that is fair to the victims and fair to the accused. Which is why it is especially sticky for Major League Baseball to handle the case of Trevor Bauer, the 2020 National League Cy Young Award winner who signed a $40-million-a-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers entering this season. Bauer is an easy target. He is, in public, an obnoxious jerk even by the standards of hypercompetitive athletes. He has also expressed right-wing political opinions, for which reason the “woke” sportswriting crowd has been salivating for years at any prospect of getting him drummed out of the league. Neither of those things should result in him being more or less accountable for his actions than anybody else.
In that light, Pete Turner has a thought-provoking look at the unusual and sordid context of the sexual-assault charge against Bauer, and what it says about when letting your “freak flag” fly should not be allowed:
The thing about Bauer’s case is, while shocking, at its core, it’s consensual abuse. . . . Granted, his case is revolting, and like the incidents above it has: choking, slapping, violence, degradation, fear, intimidation . . . no need to continue. However grotesque, violence, choking, rough sex are her stated goals. Texts exist between the two sober adults negotiating the limits and desires of their temporary violent sexual encounter . . . This past week in court, while considering a permanent extension to the restraining order against Bauer, Judge Gould-Saltman said the “injuries as shown in the photographs are terrible” but added, “If she set limits and he exceeded them, this case would’ve been clear. But she set limits without considering all the consequences, and respondent did not exceed limits that the petitioner set.” . . . If you’ve successfully negotiated your abuse — in texts between Bauer and the alleged victim, she noted that she is a “Pro” (in the BDSM world) — then returned for more abuse, where is the line between satisfied and victim? . . . Did you ever think a female judge in Calif would say, out loud in court? “When a woman says ‘no,’ she should be believed,” Gould-Saltman said. “So what about when she says ‘yes’?”
Now, one obvious response is that some things are too immoral and dangerous to be tolerated, whether or not they are consensual. Call me a moralizer, but I have some sympathy for that view here. That is, after all, why prostitution should remain illegal — it is not just inherently exploitative, it also facilitates sex slavery. In fact, there is a fair case to be made that our casual-sex culture as a whole produces an unacceptably high volume of sexual assaults that would not otherwise happen. Most of the people pushing hardest against Bauer, however, tend to be the same people who have the biggest objections to sexual morality of any kind. But if the evidence truly shows that Trevor Bauer did nothing without his victim’s consent (and in individual criminal cases, the evidence is not always what it first appears), maybe we need to think harder about the idea that consent is the only standard we apply to morality in the bedroom.
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