At a time when other organizations are struggling in their efforts to even pay lip service to important human issues, the Tampa Bay Rays have made raising awareness about domestic abuse a part of their organizational mission. That extends from the field to the stands to the staff and to the team’s actions off the field, where the Rays have — for several years — partnered with St. Pete’s Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA).
Jenn Tran, who serves as the Rays’ Vice President Human Resources and Organizational Engagement, says that through the Rays partnership with CASA, they have learned that domestic violence “is widespread, and it doesn’t only affect women. One-in-three women and one-in-four men are abused at least once in their lives. Members of the LGBTQ community may be affected as well, and especially reluctant to come forward.”
The Rays donate to CASA, a recent Rays Wives’ event raised money for the organization, and Rays employees have built a playground for the children who stay in the CASA shelter. CASA also runs an MLB-mandated workshop for Rays office staff on how to recognize and address problems of domestic abuse.
But perhaps the most striking evidence of this partnership can be found anytime you use the restroom at Tropicana Field.
In each stall of the women’s bathrooms, and at central locations in the men’s rooms, you will find this sign:
Why the bathrooms?
Because, says Lariana Forsythe, CASA’s CEO, organizations helping those affected by domestic abuse have to think creatively about ways to reach those in need in times and at places where they may have some distance from their abusers.
A bathroom visit can be a rare moment of privacy. At a time when most people carry cell phones, someone can make a private call from the bathroom, or take a quick picture of the sign. Even someone without a cell phone has a private moment to write down a phone number.
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which operates the 2-1-1 emergency call line, is also part of this initiative.
The signs throughout the stadium not only provide help for those in need of it; they also go a long way in raising awareness of domestic violence, which is shockingly common but is so often a hidden problem.
Ms. Forsythe notes that domestic abuse has wide repercussions. So often those involved in violent crime have histories of intimate partner abuse.
Domestic violence even has an economic impact, with lost wages, medical costs and impact of the criminal justice system reaching well beyond the individual household. Researchers at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg are currently completing a study that has documented this economic impact; their findings will be released in October.
The Rays partnership has helped CASA raise awareness of the problem while at the same time providing important direct services to those for whom home is no longer a safe place.
I had noticed the signs during trips to the Trop over the past two seasons. They struck me as a great way to share information with anyone experiencing abuse, but I hadn’t given a lot of thought to their presence until earlier this month, when a Houston Astros fan was reportedly ejected from Minute Maid Park for carrying a sign that offered the phone number of a domestic violence hotline.
The sign was a protest against the team’s signing of Roberto Osuna while he was completing an MLB-mandated suspension for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. The fan said he was told he had to leave because his sign was “not baseball related,” according to multiple outlets.
When asked for comment, the Astros merely re-stated their policy that “Banners must be baseball-related and support teams and players, so long as they are in good taste” and “Management reserves the right to remove any sign deemed inappropriate,” as reported by SB Nation.
I found this incident troubling for multiple reasons.
To suggest that a sign sharing a domestic violence hotline number was not in “good taste” merely reinforces the idea that victims of abuse need to keep their pain to themselves. The Astros were also, it seemed, incredibly tone-deaf to the concerns of some fans that they were supporting an abuser.
I was also surprised, though, because in my home ballpark of Tropicana Field, that same information is found almost literally behind every door.
Baseball, and all professional sports, has been grappling, not always successfully, with the problem of athletes who abuse their partners. The Rays have, themselves, been faced with issues of player domestic violence, most recently deciding to release starting catcher Derek Norris in June 2017 following reports that he was under investigation for domestic abuse; those claims were subsequently substantiated by MLB, which suspended and fined him in September of that year.
The Rays partnership with CASA cannot, of course, ensure that team members, or off-field personnel, will never engage in abusive behavior. Like all teams, and indeed like all employers and members of society, the Rays will no doubt be confronted with difficult decisions about signing or keeping talented team members who have engaged in abusive behavior before or during their tenure with the team in the future.
The process of determining appropriate punishment and whether/when an abuser has earned his way back to a major league team is a difficult one. Every case is unique, every incident is different. But while these issues will never be easy, it is encouraging to know that the Rays are willing to say out loud that domestic violence is a real problem, that they put actions behind that statement, and that they as a team in Major League Baseball are working to confront this problem.