David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
TAMPA, Fla. - Statistics are supposed to be meaningless in spring training. But Saturday, on a gray, rainy morning at Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees were exposed to numbers that could not be more important, more critical. In some cases, they can be a matter of life and death.
The Yankees were told:
On average, more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.
Nearly one in four women in the United States reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life.
15.5 million children in the United States live in families in which partner violence occurred at least once in the past year, and 7 million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred.
These statistics are provided by Futures Without Violence, the organization recruited in a joint effort by Major League Baseball and the Players Association to educate their rosters this year during spring training.
The initiative is new. The plague of domestic violence, unfortunately, has been around for far too long. Some people have witnessed it firsthand in their lives, perhaps involving family or friends. For others, maybe it took those few seconds of Ray Rice in that hotel elevator to open their eyes.
"There's no question,'' said Rachael Smith Fals, senior vice president at Futures Without Violence, "that video changed everything.''
Rice was a running back for the Ravens. The horrifying clip of him punching his then-fiancee and knocking her unconscious sent shock waves that resonated in every league headquarters, and the commissioner's office soon began exploring options for raising awareness among MLB teams.
Some may argue this program is long overdue. After all, as Smith Fals emphasized, her organization has been running public service announcements since 1993. But if Rice had to be the tipping point here, so be it. By reaching out to all 30 teams, and every player on their 40-man rosters, the momentum to curb future acts increases immensely. Then add the further education of minor-leaguers, which also is built into the fledgling program, and there is a catalyst here for real change.
"They're not just doing an ad campaign,'' Smith Fals said. "This was a coming together of Major League Baseball and the Players Association; they're trying to get their house in order.''
Consider this the first few bricks of the foundation. On Saturday, the Yankees gathered in the pavilion tent for a presentation by Futures Without Violence that lasted roughly 90 minutes. But this was not merely watching a video or reading pamphlets. The key element was the interactive component, as players were put in a number of scenarios that had potentially different outcomes -- some positive, others disastrous.
"It created a good dialogue,'' Chris Capuano said. "Just made everyone a little bit more aware. Some guys shared stories, maybe from their personal life, and this stuff really kind of hits home.
"I think it's a good thing because sometimes, in this team kind of environment, the more communication you have, and the more trust you have in each other, the better everything flows. Getting to know each other better and feeling more comfortable talking about a lot of things is good.''
That's another advantage to doing this in a team setting. As Smith Fals said, it becomes one extended support group. Baseball players spend a great deal of time together, often away from home and family, so the need to lean on each other is magnified. Many stressful situations can be defused, and identifying them is the first step in heading off a dangerous escalation.
"When we're in the clubhouse, we don't always talk about baseball,'' Carlos Beltran said. "We talk about other things in life, so there's always times when you develop friendships with other players and you feel comfortable talking about other stuff.
"I think for the younger guys, it's good that they implement this type of meeting. Because at the end of the day, as much information as you can get, the better decisions you're going to make in life.''
Smith Fals said her organization works with individual teams from other professional sports leagues, but MLB is the only one that has made this program mandatory across the board. MLB and the Players Association also have combined to set up a confidential 24-hour domestic-abuse hotline to help combat the problem. By going all-in on the education front, MLB has helped raise the profile of this cause in a positive light rather than waiting for its own Rice incident to blow up.
"This has been a major milestone in our movement,'' Smith Fals said. "Professional athletes are role models, like it or not, and lots of people look up to these guys. The opportunity to engage them in a proactive way is unprecedented.''
Don't underestimate the power of information. Esta Soler, the founder of Futures Without Violence, has cited a more favorable kind of statistic in recent interviews: From 1993 to 2010, domestic violence against adult females in the United States plunged 64 percent, in large part because of an increased awareness.
"This is a preventive type of program,'' Smith Fals said. "But it helps them as a baseball player and beyond.''
MLB's policies involving this subject, however, can't begin and end with mere prevention. There also needs to be a disciplinary aspect, which was yet another embarrassing complication in the NFL's poor handling of the Rice situation. MLB's collective-bargaining agreement does not include specific language for meting out punishment in domestic violence cases. But commissioner Rob Manfred -- who took over for Bud Selig in January -- has been working with the union to amend that in time for Opening Day.
"We want a policy that is effective and as good as any in professional sports,'' Manfred said last week at a news conference, "so we're not going to settle for something less than that.''
It took some time to reach this point. But at least baseball has arrived.
"This is something that's been going around for years,'' Beltran said. "It's good that it's getting the attention it's getting now.''