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Spouse Abuse and Sports: Do Teams Drop the Ball?

It's an issue that has become too common in the high-pay, high-pressure world of pro athletics: How should sports deal with good players who are accused of criminal conduct?

Officials of the storied Boston Red Sox, team of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and August collapses, are confronting that very problem this week. The team's star left-fielder, Wilfredo Cordero, is enmeshed in allegations of spousal abuse. Indications are that Cordero is finished in Boston and will soon be traded to a different town.

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The Sox are a business, after all, and need a positive image to fill Fenway Park seats. But has the team handled the matter fairly? Or is it just quickly dispatching a public-relations problem?

Few would dispute that sports teams, whose members are perceived as role models, have a right to hold players to acceptable moral standards. But they are also often expected to help players with personal difficulties. Balancing these sometimes-conflicting roles in a hot glare of media attention can be extraordinarily difficult - as the Red Sox are finding.

Don McPherson, a former pro football player and now director of Mentors in Violence Prevention at Northeastern University in Boston, says the accusations surrounding Cordero are a public, not private, issue. The Red Sox "are in a business that depends on public involvement and trust. Cordero is a public person," Mr. McPherson says. "It's about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. It's about player images and subtle messages."

Some fans and sports commentators are concerned the "subtle message" in this case is that the Red Sox made light of the problem - apparently persuading Cordero's wife, Ana, to drop charges that her husband struck her with a telephone at their home June 11. The team also ordered counseling and benched its $3-million-a-year man for eight games, a sort of cooling off period for the player and the local press.

Then, over the weekend, court documents from a divorce proceeding surfaced, alleging Cordero had also beaten his former wife, Wanda. Although Cordero has steadfastly denied the abuse and faces no charges stemming from the allegations, this revelation sent the team's management into a tailspin, and trade talks began in earnest.

THIS is not the first time the Red Sox, other major league ball clubs, or other sports teams have grappled with allegations of domestic violence in their ranks. Baseball stars Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, and Barry Bonds, to name a few, have been accused of abusing their spouses. Football and basketball players have been named as well.

In fact, violence against women was the leading crime among professional athletes in 1995 in each major sport, according to a Los Angeles Times survey. That view mirrors society as a whole: Spousal abuse is ranked as the No. 1 cause of injuries to women in the United States, according to the US Surgeon General.

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"Sports teams seem to be very hesitant to work with this issue," says Rita Smith of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She lauds pro teams' stand against drug use and the programs they've developed to eradicate drugs from sports. If "all sports teams take the same kind of stand against spousal abuse as they do [against] drugs - refuse to allow their employees to participate in that kind of behavior - they can discourage that behavior," she adds.

Fernando Mederos, an expert on domestic-violence intervention, says spousal battering by sports celebrities mirrors the societal pattern. For some reason, it isn't considered "taboo" as a crime. The behavior - as in the case of drug use - has to reach a level of condemnation by society before it will decline, he says.

"If [Cordero] had broken a phone over someone else's head ... he wouldn't have been still on the team," Mr. Mederos says.

If nothing else, the Cordero case may force major league baseball to take a public stand on domestic violence. "There is no room in baseball or society for such behavior, and we in baseball abhor it," Bud Selig, chairman of baseball's governing executive council, said Friday, announcing an "immediate investigation" into allegations surrounding Cordero.

Although the young outfielder currently faces no charges, he may still be traded or suspended - an unlikely option if he worked in an office somewhere in America or his native Puerto Rico.

On the other hand, if the Red Sox decide to help the player and his family, the team would promote family values far more than its public-relations campaign ever could, says McPherson.

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