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CHICAGO—In the waiting room of a nondescript brick building just west of the Chicago Loop, a little boy in a Cubs hat clings to his mother’s leg. They’re two of more than a dozen people checking in and filling out paperwork at the Circuit Court of Cook County on Harrison Street, a courthouse dedicated entirely to domestic violence-related cases, on the Friday afternoon before Game 6 of the NLCS.
In the back corner of the waiting room is another door that leads to a short hallway. There’s a small reception area, several offices (most of them shared), a room full of files and a windowless conference room. This is the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, an 11-employee operation that works with an average of 1,300 women a year helping them obtain everything from orders of protection—often emergency, often contested—against domestic abusers to divorces to social services.
In a good year, the Illinois Department of Human Services pays out about $18 million to domestic violence agencies, but because the state cannot agree on a budget for 2016, there’s been no such payout. (In 2015, the funds didn’t come until December.) The DVLC counts on the $250,000 it should receive annually from the state to stay afloat—and as the budget crisis persists, it’s relying in part on the more than $19,000 and counting it’s received from an unlikely channel.
Caitlin Swieca is the biggest Cubs fan I know. We met when she was a student at the University of Missouri and working in the sports department of the Columbia Missourian. I’d graduated from the school a few years earlier, and she and I hit it off, largely because of our shared love of baseball. She loves the Cubs irrationally, loyally and unabashedly; they are programmed into her DNA.
But when the Cubs traded for the Yankees' Aroldis Chapman at the deadline on July 25 and added the most fearsome closer in baseball to the best team in baseball, Swieca—like many Cubs fans—felt conflicted. Chapman, 28, was not quite three months removed from returning to action after having served a 30-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy following an October 2015 incident in which he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired his gun into a garage wall. Chapman wasn't arrested because of conflicting statements given by witnesses, and no charges were filed. He vehemently denied the allegation that he had committed any bodily harm to his girlfriend, according to police reports, though he did admit shooting the firearm. On March 1, Chapman became the first player punished under MLB's new domestic violence policy. He did not appeal the suspension, and in a statement he said, "I want to be clear, I did not in any way harm my girlfriend that evening. However, I should have exercised better judgment with respect to certain actions, and for that I am sorry."
After returning to the field for New York, the hard-throwing closer with the triple-digit fastball posted a 2.01 ERA and converted 20 of 21 save chances, striking out 44 batters in 31 1/3 innings. When Chicago acquired him, it already had the best record in the majors and was the story of the year in baseball as it seeks the franchise's first World Series title since 1908. According to someone with knowledge of the situation, multiple members of the Cubs' front office felt deep concern over actively trying to acquire a player who had been accused of domestic violence. In the aftermath of the trade, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told the media that he and team chairman Tom Ricketts had a conversation with Chapman about his past prior to making the move. Chapman, Epstein said, was heartfelt in his answers, which satisfied the two executives. But when asked about that conversation by reporters after arriving in Chicago, Chapman said through a translator that he couldn’t recall the details and had been “sleepy” while they talked.
When Swieca heard the news of the trade, she spent hours wondering how she could reconcile her love for the Cubs with her social conscience. Only a casual Blackhawks fan, she’d refused to pull for the team in 2015 while winger Patrick Kane’s rape investigation was pending. (Kane was never charged due to inconsistencies in the woman’s case and contradictory evidence.) Why, then, Swieca asked herself, should she hold the Cubs to a different standard just because she’d loved them for as long as she could remember?
She couldn’t, she decided, but she also felt that no longer cheering for the Cubs during their potentially historic run would be near impossible. It also, she thought, would accomplish nothing. Instead, she decided to donate $10 to the DVLC for every Chapman save. A recovering sports writer—she had left the Northwest Herald, a suburban Chicago paper, earlier in July to work in consulting—Swieca tweeted about her decision, and her message went somewhat viral on social media. (Her original tweet from July 27 had amassed 398 retweets and 1,034 likes by last Saturday night.) What started out as one woman easing her conscience became a movement with its own hashtag: #pitchin4dv. Chapman notched 16 regular-season saves after the trade and three more in the postseason, and by the afternoon before the Cubs began play in their first World Series since 1945, #pitchin4dv had raised $20,325 for the DVLC.
“I had a pit in my stomach the first few times Chapman pitched for the Cubs, but as the social media response to the campaign grew, I stopped dreading it so much,” Swieca says. “Every save reminded me how many fans out there are not okay with his presence on the team.”
Early on in the movement, the DVLC reached out to Swieca to coordinate the effort and set up an online fundraising page. Margaret Duval, the DVLC’s executive director, says meeting Swieca helped her better understand the conundrum that is cheering for a team with an accused domestic abuser on its roster. "For many people, it's part of their heritage,” Duval says. “It's part of their identity—their family identity, their personal identity. It transcends hobby, so to say stop cheering, it's not, for those people, a realistic option."
Swieca still receives responses on Twitter from angry fans—largely of other MLB clubs—who criticize her idea and tell her she should simply stop cheering for the Cubs. They come in waves, often when someone with a large number of followers sends out a message about #pitchin4dv, and she’s learned to ignore them. Anger alone is inconsequential. Instead she, unlike so many other angry and disappointed fans, found a way to make a difference, and she stands by that. It’s an added bonus that what she thought might generate a couple hundred dollars has instead ballooned past anything she could have imagined.
Duval is not an ardent sports fan, but recently, sports has intruded into at least the periphery of her job. When the Ray Rice tape leaked two years ago, Duval and others at the DVLC had no idea the volume of domestic violence accusations across sports that were to come. During the #pitchin4dv campaign, the DVLC has not had contact with the Cubs. Duval says that her understanding of the matter is that the team does not want to contribute to the storyline. She understands the PR ramifications for a club that’s once again baseball’s darling after years of struggle, but for her, domestic violence is a daily reality to confront. Each month, she sees teenagers who have been abused. She’s seen women in their 80s come to the clinic. Their suffering is not broadcast on SportsCenter or debated in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. They are disadvantaged. They are often immigrants struggling to obtain a legal means to stay in the United States. It took Chapman’s arrival in Chicago for many to even consider these women, but in that, there is a tiny kernel of something positive.
Duval says that those within the DVLC have worried about profiting off of an alleged domestic abuser. “But I think it comes back to ... [the fact that] people are going to continue to go [to games], and I think the fact that people continue to make these donations shows that it is not as though they said, Okay, I've done this, and I don't care anymore. It's been an ongoing process." She calls the campaign a “temporary solution” to the organization’s budget crisis but bemoans the fact that there’s nothing approaching a system-wide solution to domestic violence. Eventually, campaigns like #pitchin4dv have an expiration date, and every new iteration will likely gain less and less traction. (New York Giants fans started a #fieldgoals4dv campaign after allegations against kicker Josh Brown came to the forefront this fall, and it’s raised about $2,500.) Plus, Duval says, it would be difficult to keep getting behind such campaigns when their very existence proves that domestic violence remains an issue in pro sports.
“I don't think we can see this as something that will happen over and over again,” she says. “There will come a point where it is no longer feasible for us to support something like this."
But for a barebones operation that changes the lives of thousands of women each year, this temporary solution works. Contested orders of protection cost between $650 and $1,100, Duval says; the money the effort has raised could be used to pay for the safety of more than 20 women. Beyond that, the campaign has captured the short attention spans of sports fans in 2016, and it’s held them, and that matters.
If the Cubs finish this October in a way they have not been able to in 108 years, Chapman will likely be on the mound to close out the game, just as he was when they wrapped up the Division Series and then the NLCS, clinching the team's first pennant since 1945. If it happens in Chicago this weekend, Wrigley Field will roar in support of him, a sound that is at once overwhelming and sad. It will be a moment that exemplifies how messy the relationship between sports and social consciousness has become.
Swieca will lose her mind cheering, and not just because her team will finally be champions. “No matter how this World Series ends,” she says, “this season will always be associated with the funds we were able to raise for domestic violence survivors, and that’s a cool feeling.” Seven miles south of the Friendly Confines, Duval and her staff will have wrapped up another day—perhaps busy, perhaps unremarkable, but certainly having helped save the life of another woman, or another little boy, or even, odds are, another Cubs fan.