Rehabilitation, change, and Addison Russell

On Friday, the Cubs did what it seemed increasingly likely that they would do and tendered a contract to shortstop Addison Russell. Russell, of course, was suspended at the tail end of the 2018 Cubs season for his violent and unacceptable actions towards his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy following her detailing his abusive behavior in a late September blog post.

No one should have to experience what Melisa Reidy experienced at the hands of Addison Russell.

Initially, there seemed to be a consensus that Russell had probably played his last game with the Cubs. Many correctly pointed out the poor message that retaining Russell would send to Cubs fans who cared about or had experienced domestic violence. It was a familiar conversation to Cubs fans, who were forced to have it just two years earlier after the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman, who had an even more well-known history of violent behavior prior to his acquisition.

In Theo Epstein’s press conference at the end of the 2018 season, he directly addressed the issue of Russell. In stating that he couldn’t say whether Russell would play for the Cubs again, Theo moved beyond the specifics of Russell to address the issue of domestic violence more generally. He stated, “I personally think the most important thing is being part of the solution going forward. … We want to make sure it doesn’t happen on our watch.”  And in regards to the specific incident, Theo said more – “we’ll reach out to the victim, learn from it and give her support. We’ll talk to Addy and give Addy the necessary support so he can get the help he needs to make sure this never happens again.”

Fundamentally, as someone who who believes in recovery, this is a message I agree with. People, all people, are deserving of help to make positive change. I believe very firmly in rehabilitation and the potential of all people to become better than who they are or were. The emphasis on punishment and vengeance that is so common in both our justice system and our society more broadly is a blemish on us all.

Change though, has to start somewhere. In most models of change, whether 12-step programs for recovery from addiction or the Transtheoretical Model of Change that any social work, counseling, or psychology student knows well, the most critical step for change is the acceptance of a problem. The alcoholic who sees no problem with their drinking is unlikely to make meaningful progress towards sobriety. That fact won’t be changed by the consequences of a DUI, a breakup, or a lost job unless the person in question sees a problem and is willing to take difficult, meaningful steps towards a different way of being. The same can be said for an abuser.

Change is not something that happens to people, it’s something that people create within themselves.

Russell, of course, did not demonstrate to any extent that he believed he had a problem or was seeking meaningful change to his propensity for violence. His responses had ranged from denial to silence as he consistently complied with only what he had to – accepting the reality of an investigation into his behavior and later on, a suspension for that behavior.

In tendering Russell a contract on Friday, the Cubs and Russell released a pair of statements in which Russell, for the first time, admitted that he had something to apologize for. While failing to note the specificity of severity of his actions, Russell apologized to Melisa Reidy, his family, and Cubs fans for his “past behavior.” He noted that he had accepted his suspension and was complying with MLBPA mandated treatment including counseling and therapy in addition, he notes, to seeking out his own therapy.

People with good intentions can disagree about the weight of Russell’s statement. He lied for over a year about what he had done and has still not admitted to it in unambiguous terms. He very likely consulted with or relied on legal counsel to craft his statement. In many ways, he was backed into a corner as the real possibility of him not being tendered a contract lingered.

The only person who can know the sincerity of Addison Russell’s words is Addison Russell. I hope his words are sincere, and my baseline as a person and as a professional is always going to be to take people at their word whenever I can.

The extent to which you think a professional athlete deserves to be held to a higher standard is a personal choice. I am of the belief that they, like our leaders in government, individuals in law enforcement, and even licensed healthcare professionals like me deserve to be held to a higher standard by virtue of the position of public trust they are in. Certain roles come with greater responsibility and accountability than others, and my belief that all people are deserving of the chance for redemption does not mean that all people should be able to be in roles of trust after they take actions that violate that trust. I think we’re owed more as fans.

But the reality is, as we’ve seen so many times, what we’re owed as fans is precisely nothing. As a fan, I’m not sure I can be convinced to support Addison Russell the baseball player ever again. I think the Cubs desire to provide him with support needed to make meaningful change is a positive thing, I think it’s the correct thing.

I don’t think that support needed to extend to tendering Russell a contract. The Cubs state they are offering support to Melisa Reidy and that they want to be a part of the solution to domestic violence. In the same way that they have offered support to Melisa Reidy, who is not a member of the Cubs organization, they could offer support to a version of Addison Russell who is no longer on the Cubs roster.

As I said earlier on, I am a supporter of rehabilitation over punishment. If Russell wants to change, something I am choosing to believe for the moment, I want him to have all the resources he needs to make those changes. He is a father and now, a spouse to a new woman who does not deserve to go through what Melisa Reidy went through. His children and loved ones deserve the best version of him that can exist. If he wants to make sure that he never acts violently towards a woman again and is willing to take meaningful steps to make that change, I am supportive of the Cubs providing him with those resources to the extent that they can. The Cubs can provide those resources without keeping him in the organization.

I wish that the Cubs had been willing to offer this support to a version of Addison Russell who had played his last game with the team, but it seems very likely at this point that this is not our reality.

I want to believe that Addison Russell wants to change and is willing to do the hard work involved in making that happen. If he does, if his words are sincere, I am rooting for Addison Russell the person.

I wish I didn’t have to root for Addison Russell the baseball player.

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