Late Wednesday, a day after the Chicago Cubs had been eliminated from the playoffs, Major League Baseball announced that it was suspending Addison Russell for 40 games for “violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violent, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.” Russell will also be required to “participate in a confidential and comprehensive evaluation and treatment program.”
Russell issued a statement saying he is accepting MLB’s resolution because he decided it was best interest for his family “after gaining a full understanding of the situation.” More likely than not, both MLB and Russell are hoping that fall and winter prove to be enough time for fans to forget before baseball starts up again in the spring. Typically, this would be where the media narrative would end.
But then Russell’s ex-wife, Melisa Reidy-Russell, spoke out again. She participated in two stories: a sit-down interview with WGN’s Lauren Magiera and an interview with the Athletic’s Katie Strang. Both pieces gave Reidy-Russell space to discuss the abuse she says she suffered, why she hid it from so many people for so long, why she told MLB she wouldn’t cooperate with its investigation, and why, more than a year later, she changed her mind and wrote her blog post, then spoke to MLB. For a moment, press coverage about domestic violence was about a woman who said she was abused, not the man either denying it or promising he would never do it again.
This happened because Reidy-Russell made it happen.
Structures set up to address domestic violence often end up doing to survivors what their abusive partners already have done to them—slowly and systemically taking power away from them. This happens when a mandatory minimum asserts that the state knows better how to punish a person than the person being abused. Or someone is forced to testify against their will in a case that won’t make them safer. Or when sports leagues insist they have to do something, even if the survivor wants nothing done. Reidy-Russell didn’t allow that to happen to her.
Reidy-Russell said she never called he police about what happened because it wasn’t an option, telling ESPN “I loved my husband a lot. I even made excuses for him. And there’s such an embarrassment.” The divorce petition didn’t mention violence, either. That meant that for MLB to understand what had happened, its investigators had to get the information directly from Reidy-Russell. To MLB’s credit, Reidy-Russell says representatives were very patient and understanding with her—but MLB didn’t have a choice. To Reidy-Russel’s credit, she waited until she was ready to speak, after she and the couple’s son were safely out of the couple’s home and her divorce from Russell was finalized. She wrote her blog post when she felt she could.
(MLB’s statement says the Russell investigation was open for 15 months while they “continued our efforts to gather information,” but Reidy-Russell’s interview with the Athletic makes it clear that this actually was someone who checked in with her occasionally. All these years later, MLB still never passes up a chance to use self-aggrandizing language.)
Once Reidy-Russell agreed to cooperate with MLB, its leaders were able to swiftly reach a conclusion because she had all the information they needed. And when the news broke, Reidy-Russell took control of her story in the media too. She did two interviews, both of which came out soon after the MLB announcement. She was open about the fact that she didn’t have any suggestion on how her ex-husband should be punished, saying “My intentions were not to give him punishment.”
After reading and watching her interviews, I thought back to the coverage of Janay Rice when her husband, Ray, was trying to make a comeback after his domestic violence case. My former colleague Puja Patel rightly called out several stories for glossing over Janay Rice’s story, putting the focus on the damage done to her husband’s career while ignoring what any of it meant for his victim. That didn’t happen in this case. I doubt it’s because the baseball media is more enlightened than the football press, although seeing the latter’s failings gives the former an advantage. Instead, Reidy-Russell didn’t give them a choice. She told her story when she wanted to, first to MLB, then to the reporters she chose. She went from being in a powerless situation to having power over her own life and her own narrative.
I won’t be surprised if some among the baseball press or within MLB start to debate whether the Russell case was handled “right or wrong,” as if it were an umpire’s call to be re-evaluated over instant reply. Suspensions ultimately are about public relations, calibrated to officials’ best guess at many games will bring angry people down at least to lukewarm and back to buying tickets. The idea of assigning a number of baseball games on forms of human cruelty is always going to feel somewhere between arbitrary and disgusting. The stuff that matters—if Russell will learn and grow as a human being—is unknowable. He could go to 50 counseling sessions, or he could take the Aroldis Chapman treatment and only attend one. He could change his approach to the world, or he could not. In an ideal world, creating improvement plans for people wouldn’t be outsourced to sports leagues run by ruthless businessmen, but that is not the world we live in.