We believe in second chances. That’s what we’ve heard time and time again from NFL teams that bring in players with prior arrests for domestic violence. We heard it from the Dallas Cowboys with Greg Hardy. We heard it from the Chicago Bears with Ray McDonald. And the same message is being sent in the Washington Redskins’ waiver claim of Reuben Foster – this is a country of second chances.
It’s true on one level. America is built on second chances. But the Foster case is a sad example of how seeming benevolence is not only a disservice to victims and a female fan base, but a likely disservice to an alleged abuser who needs help.
On Thursday, Doug Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel, tried to rationalize the acquisition of Foster: “Basically what you’re doing here is you’re taking a high-risk chance. The high risk was the beat-up that we’re going to take from PR. We understood that from a PR standpoint, and we’re taking it.”
He couldn’t be more wrong. This isn’t about public relations. It’s about the rehabilitation of a human being and the possible threat to those in his circle. Teams may have mental health professionals on staff. They may have good intentions. But they do not grasp the depth of the problem for Foster and others like him. They do not grasp what it takes to break the cycle of harm. If they did, they would be more likely to take Foster’s helmet away for a long time instead of giving it right back to him.
“The league [NFL] has not been serious about this issue at all,” says Katherine Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “The league has a way to protect the players from accountability and have it be somebody else’s problem. And if the NFLPA really cared about it, they would mandate suspension and counseling, but they don’t care about the players either. They are all eating from the same trough. The cycle continues because there’s no catalyst for change. None.”
Put simply: someone like Reuben Foster needs a first chance at bringing down his demons before getting a second chance at sacking a quarterback.
History of violence for Foster
We don’t know for certain everything that happened in the San Francisco 49ers’ hotel in Tampa last weekend. According to a police report, Foster was with his ex-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis. He “slapped her phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the right side of her face,” according to the police report. Foster had already nearly lost his career from a domestic violence charge only several months ago. The one thing he knew he could not do was raise a hand to a woman.
And what was he doing with Ennis, of all people? It was Ennis who accused him of hitting her multiple times last February and rupturing her eardrum, only to recant the charge in a dramatic courtroom scene later in the year. Still there they were, together, in Tampa. It was shockingly unwise to be in Ennis’ orbit – not to mention dangerous to Ennis herself. “What happened Saturday,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, after the team cut Foster, “with the same [person] at a team hotel, it’s just hard to comprehend how you could put yourself in that situation again.”
It was clear last weekend that Foster needed help. It was becoming clear long before, when the 49ers took a chance on him in the 2017 draft. And it should have been clear to the Redskins, who waited only two days after he was cut to bring him in.
We don’t know the full extent of Foster’s obstacles, but we know they began to arrive way too early in his life. In 1996, Danny Foster shot his ex-wife, Inita Paige multiple times. Reuben was also wounded in the shooting. He was 1. The elder Foster broke out of jail with a hacksaw and he was a fugitive for 16 years before being caught in 2013. He is now in prison, and won’t be up for parole until 2035. Reuben’s mother, who suffered a collapsed lung in the shooting, said she didn’t discuss the incident with her son until he was 5. When asked at the beginning of his NFL career what he had to say to his father, Reuben Foster replied, “How could you?”
You would think that Foster would be the least likely person to strike a woman, the least likely person to risk his own livelihood by doing so. But the problem in domestic violence cases – one of the many problems – is that destructive behavior repeats over generations. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Foster made a success of himself in part by turning to football, where he was rewarded for the on-field violence he showed. One of Foster’s best plays at Alabama came on a vicious hit of Leonard Fournette in a game against LSU. “Nobody ever hit him like that,” Foster once said of the tackle, his eyes wide. There was a way to show tremendous power. It was an identity. Many of the character witnesses the Redskins interviewed about Foster knew him from that football bubble, and from only that world.
In real life, though, relationships are much more complex. So is the roadmap for how to behave as a man. Foster’s dad vanished without showing his son how to be a father or a husband. So Foster’s image of relationships was framed at least in part from his mother having to deal with the awful aftermath of a near-fatal attack. “Whereas some people may take that childhood and say, ‘I will never abuse someone else,’ the abuse can foster a coping mechanism which then becomes how they function,” Redmond says. “They normalize it.”
It’s unclear if this happened with Foster. However, the signs are very much present. Foster’s behavior, his recklessness, is a reason to pause his football career for a while.
Good NFL decision that needs to go further
From a distance, it’s easy to blame entitlement and arrogance: The spoiled athlete who never hears the word “no” and thinks he can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. There’s certainly something to that, as football players are usually treated like kings in this country. But that’s too facile. Domestic violence is about power, and a rich and famous football player has a lot of it already. Reuben Foster, if he truly feels powerful, wouldn’t need to hit a woman. If he felt powerful, he would remove himself from any bad situation. Instead of feeling powerful, abusers often feel an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and insecurity. And the more fragile they feel, the more desperate for control they become.
When a football team gives someone like Foster another chance so quickly after an arrest, it’s a message to keep doing what he’s doing. It’s a message that whatever emotions he’s feeling are acceptable – and lucrative. A team like the Redskins or the 49ers may say publicly how serious it takes the charge of domestic violence, but at the same time those teams are risking more violence by failing to do enough to stop it. The NFL put Foster on its commissioner’s exempt list – a good decision – but it’s not enough.
Maybe the best example is the league’s most notorious offender: Ray Rice. The former Baltimore Raven’s assault of his then-fiancee in an elevator in 2014 led to a torrent of negative publicity and the end of his football career. That was perhaps what he needed most. He is now four years married to wife Janay.
“I understand [domestic violence] more now better than ever,” he told ESPN.com last year. “I think the physical part of it is the only thing that really gets talked about, and I don’t think it’s fair that everything else gets left out. It’s emotional, verbal, financial abuse. There’s no place for it.”
Rice is in some ways fortunate he could focus on healing and not on football. “Ray Rice is the only one who got severely punished for the domestic violence,” says San Francisco attorney Nicole Ford, who works with domestic violence victims, “and he’s the only one who seems to have learned a lesson.”
What’s the lesson for Foster? He would benefit from years of counseling – years of facing the tragedy in his past and the tragedy he has created. That doesn’t have to mean the end of his career, but it shouldn’t mean an interruption of two days.
We all believe in second chances. But a second chance without proven rehabilitation is only another chance to continue a tragic spiral.
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