When it comes to domestic violence, the NFL has failed every single test
On Saturday, then-San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested in Tampa Bay on a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence following an altercation with his on-again, off-again girlfriend of three years. According to the Tampa Bay Police, who found a one-inch scratch on the woman’s left collarbone, “Foster slapped [the victim’s] phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the left side of her face.”
This was not Foster’s first time being charged with domestic violence. In February, he was charged with felony domestic violence against the same woman. A couple of months later, she recanted the allegations, and said she’d made up the story to hurt his career. The 49ers — who had touted a “zero-tolerance” police for domestic violence — stuck by Foster throughout this episode.
But this time, they cut him immediately, and released a strong anti-domestic violence statement — wait, no, I’m sorry: After releasing Foster, 49ers general manager John Lynch delivered a bowl of word salad about “tenets” and “protecting the team.”
After John Lynch spoke, it’s apparent that the 49ers did not cut Reuben Foster because they think he committed domestic violence — they cut him because of a violation of rules that they set for Foster in the wake of his 2018 legal troubles and poor judgment.
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) November 25, 2018
By now, you probably know the next chapter of this story: Foster wasn’t unemployed for long. Three days later, the Washington NFL team scooped him up off of waivers. In a statement, Doug Williams, Senior Vice President of Player Personnel, said the team “fully understand[s] the severity of the recent allegations made against Reuben,” stressed that “Reuben will have to go through numerous steps” before he joins the active roster, and noted that Washington had “candid conversations” with a number of players who knew Foster and were “overwhelmingly supportive of us taking this chance.”
Would you like to know who Washington didn’t talk with? The police in Tampa who arrested Foster on Saturday. According to USA Today, the Philadelphia Eagles were the only team to contact the Tampa police, and Washington was the only team to put in a waiver claim.
While it’s easy to bash Washington — it’s the team that has a racist name, a bigoted owner, and employs Adrian Peterson, a running back who just admitted he still hits his son with a belt, four years after he was charged with felony child abuse for hospitalizing his son with a switch — the truth is, they are far from the only team that deserves criticism here. When it comes to violence against women, the NFL just doesn’t get it, and any claim to the contrary is nothing but a fabrication.
It’s been more than four years since TMZ released a video of then-NFL running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiance, Janay Rice, in an elevator in Atlantic City, knocking her out cold, and casually dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator of an Atlantic City.
Less than two weeks after the video became public, amid public outrage over Rice’s mere two-game suspension for the crime, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made a bold proclamation.
“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that,” he said. “But now I will get it right… We will get our house in order first.”
Every single year since, I’ve written the exact same thing: The NFL’s house is messier than it has ever been. In the past four years, the NFL has thoroughly and consistently botched every single chance it has had to show it cares about domestic violence and sexual assault.
Let’s start with Ray McDonald, a former defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers. McDonald was arrested under suspicion of domestic violence against his pregnant fiancee in August 2014, but the prosecutor dropped the case and he remained with the 49ers. Four months later, police announced he was being investigated for sexual assault. That time, the 49ers released him. Then, the Chicago Bears came calling. In March 2015, the Bears signed McDonald, convinced that he was a good guy because they spoke to many of his former teammates and family members. (Sound familiar?) They didn’t speak to the victim because, according to Bears chairman George McCaskey, she had too much “bias” in the situation.
Guess what? That May, he was arrested on domestic violence charges again and dismissed from the Bears. He was indicted on rape charges in August 2015, but the alleged victim declined to testify at the trial, so he went free. Surprisingly, he hasn’t found another NFL job since.
In the spring of 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bragged about how much due diligence it did before drafting Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the draft, despite never attempting to contact the former Florida State University student who had accused him of rape. This year, the NFL suspended Winston for only three games for “touching [his female Uber driver] in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” He is still starting for the Buccaneers, and has never been punished by the team for off-field behavior.
In the summer of 2015, the Dallas Cowboys signed Greg Hardy after he returned from a four-game suspension for domestic violence; Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was happy to give Hardy a “second chance,” and praised the former Carolina Panther for being a true “leader.” He was only dismissed from the team after he was regularly late to meetings.
In the fall of 2015, then-Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was investigated by the NFL for a domestic violence incident that involved multiple calls to 911, questioning by police, an abrasion on his then-girlfiend’s arm, and audio of the girlfriend saying, “I’m in fear for my life.” Both the police and the NFL decided that it was all a misunderstanding, and Manziel remained on the Browns. Then, the following spring, he was indicted for domestic violence against the same woman stemming from a February incident when he ruptured her ear drum, threatened to kill her, and dragged her by the hair across a parking lot. He reached a deal and the charges were dropped after he took anger management courses. The NFL suspended him for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, not for domestic violence. He hasn’t made it back to the NFL since.
In August 2016, the NFL announced it was suspending then-New York Giants kicker Josh Brown for one game for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Soon, reporters discovered that in 2015, he was arrested multiple times for domestic violence against his ex-wife, and that his ex-wife told police Brown had abused her dozens of time, and that he admitted to the Giants before he signed a contract extension that he had abused his wife. Yet, until all of this became public, he remained in the league!
Last year, the NFL briefly seemed poised to take a woman’s words seriously at long last, when it suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games after finding that “there [was] substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence against [his ex-girlfriend] on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.” Yet, they botched so many steps in the investigation that it turned his suspension into a circus of appeals and legal theatrics that was almost worse than doing nothing at all. The Cowboys stuck by Elliott all along, and he remains their starter.
Do you see a pattern? Teams seek out the information they want to hear. They give (talented) players the benefit of the doubt time and time again. Too often, this charity is repaid by further violence being committed. They’ll offer regular vows that they’re tough on domestic violence, that they care about women and victims, that they’re not enablers who only care about money and wins. But without fail, their actions say otherwise. When they’re caught red handed in the act of overlooking the seriousness of violence against women, they take absolutely no responsibility. It’s a league-wide issue.
Which brings us back to Foster.
Yes, Foster’s off-again girlfriend did recant her allegations in May, which caused prosecutors to dismiss their case against Foster stemming from charges after a February incident. She said, under oath, that she had lied about domestic violence in the past, that the injuries she suffered were just from a fight with another woman; and that she made her accusations as a means of getting money from Foster out of anger that their relationship was really ending.
However, it’s important to remember how serious the charges against Foster were, and how far the case got. At the time of the incident, the woman flagged down a stranger’s car to call 911, and alleged that Foster dragged her by the hair, physically tossed her out of the house, punched her in the head more than half a dozen times, and ruptured her ear drum. She had to be hospitalized for the injuries. In April, after a two-month investigation, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office announced that Foster was being officially charged with with felony domestic violence.
His ex-girlfriend testified against the advice of her attorneys, and after the judge dropped the case, the DA’s office expressed disappointment — they still felt strongly about the case.
“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision,” said a statement from the Santa Clara County DA Office. “We are disappointed because the evidence demonstrated that Mr. Foster seriously hurt his girlfriend. Some have wondered why we still think Mr. Foster hurt his girlfriend when she said that he didn’t. Recantation is common among domestic violence victims.”
After Foster’s arrest over the weekend, the Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen issued another statement: “We are sad, though not surprised, and exploring the legal options. The cycle of domestic violence is frightening and frighteningly powerful. Every day, this office faces the challenges of keeping survivors safe and holding DV abusers criminally accountable. As we said when the judge dismissed the case against Mr. Foster: Our commitment to domestic violence survivors is unwavering.”
The NFL cannot say the same thing. Foster’s getting another chance, just as so many men in the league have received before him. He’s on the commissioner’s exempt list while the investigation plays out, which means he’s getting paid, but isn’t available to play. Washington did just enough due diligence to hear what it wanted to hear. The NFL’s cycle of enabling continues.
Washington has no tolerance for domestic violence. Unless, of course, the woman can be painted as a liar and the player has friends who will vouch for him. That’s different. That’s the exception and the rule.
“Nothing is promised to Reuben,” Williams said. “But we are hopeful being around so many of his former teammates and friends will eventually provide him with the best possible environment to proceed both personally and professionally.”
A source close to the San Francisco Chronicle said that Foster’s ex-girlfriend was taken to a hospital by ambulance on Saturday, diagnosed with a concussion, and released later that night. She is currently in Louisiana with her family, attempting to recover.