Someday, the NFL will progress beyond Step 1 in its handling of domestic violence.
Someday, NFL executives and owners will stop talking out both sides of their mouths about character and team culture. Someday, these men who claim to be paragons of virtuous leadership and personal accountability will actually practice what they preach.
Thursday was not that day.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was formally charged on Thursday with felony domestic violence, possession of an illegal weapon and other felonies and misdemeanors stemming from a February arrest.
The official Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office statement on Foster’s case includes gruesome details of Foster dragging his former live-in girlfriend by her hair and punching her in the head repeatedly until her ear drum ruptured.
The 49ers responded with the following statement: “The 49ers organization is aware of today’s disturbing charges regarding Reuben Foster. We will continue to follow this serious matter. Reuben is aware that his place in our organization is under great scrutiny and will depend on what is learned through the legal process.”
“…what is learned through the legal process.” A DA filed formal charges after weeks of police investigations. We’re pretty deep into the legal process. But the 49ers, who have known about the incident since February, want to stroke their chins some more and see what happens next.
Is this Groundhog Day? Are teams still waiting for convictions before they act upon charges of violent crimes? And if the charges are eventually dropped—as domestic-violence charges often are, for reasons ranging from settlements to the strain on the victim—do the 49ers plan to pretend to act like nothing happened and that Foster doesn’t have a profoundly troubling pattern of behavior?
It’s as if the Ray Rice incident never happened. Or Greg Hardy. Or Josh Brown. We were supposed to have learned all of these lessons and gotten smarter. What happened?
If the 49ers really do sit on their hands and let Foster arrive for OTAs next week with little more than a stern lecture, they will be sticking to an old, familiar, exasperating script. They know any conviction is either unlikely or months away. They’ll hope Foster gets buried at the bottom of the news cycle until there’s a settlement, gambling that no Ray Rice video or Josh Brown diary finds its way into a reporter’s hands after the team’s “investigation” mysteriously came up with nothing.
The 49ers can also fall back on the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, a CYA masterpiece which gives the league power and authority to investigate matters concurrently with law enforcement, then levy its own discipline.
The league’s conduct policy is a well-established travesty because NFL investigators never find anything that they do not wish to find, and punishments appear to be assigned according to either a random suspension generator or Roger Goodell mood swings. But the conduct policy absolves individual teams of the responsibility to do much more than what the 49ers are doing: Issue a tsk-tsk statement, then turtle up.
What the 49ers should have done, if they possessed any moral courage, was release Foster immediately on Thursday.
Actually, what NFL teams should do after domestic violence charges is place the player under immediate suspension, make him undergo batteries of psychological/emotional evaluations and interventions, require him to take part in meaningful anger-management and community -service programs, and not let him near the field again until there’s a verdict or settlement, an official league ruling and some sign-off from independent parties (psychologists, domestic-violence experts) that the player is not a repeat-offense risk.
But we can’t even trust NFL teams to follow their own discipline codes, so it would be crazy to think they are trustworthy rehabilitation clinics. So the 49ers should just let Foster walk.
But they haven’t. They might hide behind innocent until proven guilty until some graphic evidence hits TMZ and suddenly jurisprudence isn’t such a big deal anymore. They might stress “due process” while merely sitting on the clock like it’s the fourth quarter and they are nursing a lead.
Even though they won’t say it, they might do all of these because Foster is good, and the 49ers don’t want to have to replace him.
It’s self-serving and craven, but if you dress it up with enough “legal process” talk it can sound like principled citizenship.
It would almost be funny that the Foster charges were issued in the same week that Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick reportedly endured the latest round of stonewalling regarding their social-justice protests. It would almost be funny that the charges arrived during the final days of predraft mayhem, when prospects are publicly wrist-slapped for questioning authority or flying first class.
But it’s not funny, because the Santa Clara district attorney says that a woman was brutally beaten, and that a man (who could not even get through Combine physicals without flying into a rage) feels the need to own illegal assault weapons with large-capacity magazines. And an industry that cannot abide by peaceful protest and acts like a bunch of Puritan fathers if they don’t like a prospect’s attitude responded with a let’s-wait-and-see statement.
The NFL cannot help but tattle on its value system, one revealing decision at a time.
The only thing left to do, besides voice our outrage, is to try to frame this issue in terms that men like Jed York and John Lynch understand, perhaps in an open letter:
Hey guys, keeping Reuben Foster on your team is bad for business and bad for football.
Jed, no one wants to root for a man who beats up women. It’s a much bigger issue, for many more potential customers, than anything that happens during the national anthem. And let’s not get trapped into a false equivalence on that front: one is a violent felony and a major social ill, the other a Constitutional right.
John, you have done so much to establish credibility among your peers and fans, and to refresh the locker-room culture with new players. Keeping Foster around undercuts your authority as a leader. It will be hard for you or Kyle Shanahan to give “accountability” speeches coaches love so much with Foster in the audience.
The 49ers will look like a forward-thinking organization headed in the right direction again as soon as you release Foster. Or, you can keep him and send a business-as-usual, talent-over-character message that will be heard loud and clear, among fans and in the media. It’s your choice, guys.
The 49ers shouldn’t need a message like that. They should have learned something, anything, from four years of domestic-violence crises in the NFL. Or they should have simply read Santa Clara prosecutor Kevin Smith’s remarks:
“Our Office handles between four and five thousand domestic violence cases each year,” Smith wrote. “We only hope that this case illuminates the tragic regularity of the rest.”
The NFL should use cases like Foster’s to illuminate a major social problem and emphasize its severity.
Someday, the league or some team will do just that.
Unfortunately, Thursday was not that day.
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