Jose Reyes case a test for MLB and Rob Manfred and a lesson for us all

The domestic violence allegations against Jose Reyes are an opportunity for Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred to show they will handle such matters effectively.
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Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was arrested in Hawaii on Oct. 31 and has been charged with assaulting his wife, Katherine Ramirez, in a hotel. The Reyes case will now be the first test of Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy. That policy, introduced in August, gives the MLB commissioner extremely broad powers to discipline players, even if they are not convicted, with no minimum or maximum parameters on the punishment (though players can challenge any ruling in front of an arbitration panel).

The precedent Manfred will set with this first implementation of that policy is important, so it’s understandable that the conversation has already turned to how many games Reyes should be suspended if these charges are true. But before we get lost in a debate over 50 games versus 81 games versus 162 games, it’s worth considering how strange it is to assign a number of games to something like domestic violence, why we end up doing so at all, and what MLB needs to do to avoid the NFL’s recent missteps.

We know only the broad outlines of the case against Reyes, who was vacationing with his wife at the time of the incident. According to a report from the Maui Police Department, an argument "turned physical and resulted in injuries. Mrs. Reyes was treated by medics at the scene and later transported to the Maui Memorial Medical Center for further treatment." Ramirez told police that Reyes had grabbed her by the throat and slammed her into a glass door. Hotel security called the police, who noted injuries to Ramirez’s neck, thigh and wrist. Reyes has not commented on the charges yet. His arraignment is set for Nov. 24.

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We should all know by now that watching a ballplayer on the field or in the clubhouse, even for more than a decade, does not mean we truly know him or her, but Reyes is a particularly jolting reminder of this. The shortstop, who came up with the Mets in 2003, played with flair and energy and a nearly omnipresent smile; in the clubhouse, at least during his time in New York, he was a friendly, beaming presence. But if the charges against him prove to be true, those impressions don’t matter. Nor do Reyes’ statistics, though all too often both fans and teams will fight much harder to avoid a suspension when the player is good.

It’s a valid question whether sports leagues should even be in the business of disciplining athletes for incidents that take place off the field, unrelated to their work. This task has fallen to sports commissioners because our criminal justice system is often ineffective when it comes to prosecuting domestic violence. Often, victims refuse to cooperate, either because they do not want to see their partner sent to prison or because they are afraid of retaliation if they do. And so crimes like the one Reyes is accused of can be difficult to take to trial. That’s how we end up outsourcing punishment to authority figures like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—who has proven woefully ill-prepared for the job—and Manfred, who is about to get his chance at the role of judge and jury. And while Manfred has a degree from Harvard Law School he, like Goodell (who does not have a law degree) hasn't trained for this role.

This should go without saying, but domestic violence is not a football problem, a baseball problem or a sports problem; it affects men and women from every field and every income level. Because professional sports have such a prominent platform, though, the message they send matters.

Domestic violence, like the equally fraught issue of sexual assault, is not something you can easily convert into a number of games or an amount of salary missed. It’s much deeper and messier. The most crucial thing for Manfred is not to settle on a magic length of suspension or amount of fines that will make this issue go away. It’s to make it clear through his words as well as his actions that he believes, and baseball believes, that this matters. This is what the NFL has failed at so spectacularly.

It’s crucial now that baseball—from the Rockies, to Manfred, to the media—does not brush this off, if the facts support the charges against him. Coaches and team officials should not dismiss this as just a case of a good guy making “a mistake,” as if Reyes were alleged to have improperly filled out a tax form or made a fielding error. (They should not, in other words, go the Jerry Jones route). This is true even though—or maybe especially because—Reyes always has seemed like a good guy, not someone from whom you would expect violence. It is very tempting to stick with that long-held view, to decide that there must be some kind of misunderstanding here, to stop thinking about this uncomfortable and jarring accusation and go on like nothing happened. But that is exactly what MLB needs to avoid.

For our part, sports media should be careful not to describe this incident as “adversity” that Reyes will need to “overcome,” as if this were something that had happened to him. And we need to be careful not to talk about this primarily as something that affects the Rockies on the field, as if their shortstop situation deserves just as much consideration as Ramirez’s injuries.

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It is too soon to say yet whether Manfred, the Rockies or the press will rise to the occasion. So far, both the team and the commissioner have made statements indicating their “concern” and plans for a full investigation—and given how little time has passed since the news broke and how little information was available, they are not wrong to proceed with caution. Reyes does have rights here, and he deserves the chance to be heard by his employers before they take action. Hopefully the Rockies and MLB will also talk to his wife, if she is willing—and hopefully it will not take graphic photos of her injuries to get them to believe her, or to care.

No perfectly calibrated combination of suspensions and fines can undo the damage, or make things right for Ramirez, and even the most flawless handling of this case would still not put a dent in America’s domestic violence problem. But what Manfred and the Rockies can do is what the NFL didn’t: let fans continue to watch baseball without feeling that the sport’s priorities are horrifyingly out of whack.