For now, Reuben Foster is a member of the San Francisco 49ers. He may be the best football player on the roster and he’s certainly in the top five.
But the reason we’re talking about Foster now, the reason so much has been written about him since the end of his rookie season, has nothing to do with his football abili—
Wait. My mistake.
Given the 49ers’ handling of Tramaine Brock a year ago, it is clear that football ability is a major factor. The talent vs. tolerance scale is in full effect when it comes to the team’s decision-making process.
Brock was arrested in April 2017 on suspicion of felony domestic violence. Two months later, he was charged with felony domestic violence and misdemeanor child endangerment.
Foster’s timeline was a February arrest with April charges — charges that are actually, though marginally, more severe — but the obvious difference between the two situations is that one man lost his job the day of his arrest while the other remains employed several days after being charged.
The organization is the same. Same ownership, same front office, same coaching staff. Whatever connections the 49ers have to the Santa Clara Police Department (connections that are certainly substantial) are the same. And we can reasonably conclude the organization know far more about both cases than we do.
The 49ers probably knew within days of Foster’s arrest what we know now. They already decided to keep him despite this evidence. This tells us that, ultimately, if the 49ers decide to cut Foster, it will be based on what they think fans will tolerate from a PR perspective, not independent moral judgment.
If you weren’t convinced of this within days of the arrest, you certainly should be this week after the announcement that Foster will be held out of the team’s offseason activities. The strategy is blatant: Sideline him for now, to avoid any additional bad optics, and hope he stays out of jail and ends up available for Week 1 of the regular season (or Week 7, if the league’s judgment is harsher than the law).
It almost always works this way in professional sports and, from a business perspective, it is difficult to fault teams (a point I’ve made here before). As much as some fans and sports columnists might want to stand on morality, a majority of the NFL’s consumer base simply doesn’t care about the character of players off the field. I’m not doubting the sincerity of people when they say they care, but when the rubber meets the road, a rash of domestic violence cases around the league won’t stop the masses from tuning in.
For those who would use Foster’s draft slippage — he was arguably a top-10 prospect but fell to the Niners at No. 31 — as evidence that “some teams care about character,” you’re just wrong. To the extent that it was his “character” that caused him to drop, it was teams caring about themselves, worrying about wasting a first-round draft asset on a player who could be out of the league after one season thanks to off-the-field issues. It was never a morality move.
By the same token, if the 49ers do cut Foster now, and the charges are ultimately dropped, he will absolutely be on an NFL roster shortly thereafter. (Probably not the Niners’ roster, even if they were interested.) That’s not a defense of anything, it’s simply a fact.
That’s exactly what happened with Brock: Charges were dropped in August, and he was on the Seattle Seahawks within a week (despite reports that San Francisco had interest). Ultimately traded to the Vikings, Brock played in 11 games last season and recently signed with the Denver Broncos, where he’ll make about $3 million this year.
A redemption story? Questionable. Read a little deeper into reports of the dismissed charges and you’ll see that a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said prosecutors declined to move forward with the case because the victim ceased cooperation.
To summarize: Man is accused of domestic violence after police were called and found his girlfriend with visible injuries; authorities found enough evidence to charge the man with felony domestic violence but ultimately could not prosecute without a willing complainant. It’s a far-too-common story in domestic violence cases and is too often dismissed (alongside the charges) as evidence that the initial complaint was never legitimate.
It’s entirely possible that charges against Foster will end up dropped or dismissed, and that he will go on to have a long NFL career. That won’t speak directly to his innocence or guilt, and it certainly won’t speak to his moral defensibility. It will only reflect the strength of the legal case against him.
There are numerous things that might make a victim decide not to cooperate, just as there are countless reasons that domestic violence victims stay with their abusers. It’s not hard to learn about this — the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good starting point — and it feels reasonable to say an abuser’s profession shouldn’t make much of a difference.
The real problem surrounding Foster’s current situation is not an NFL problem or a football problem. It’s a national problem. And while I don’t want to recklessly impugn other countries, I imagine it’s not uniquely American. It’s a horrible cultural issue, rooted in the rampant sexism that has defined humanity’s existence.
Domestic violence is a problem that is well beyond the NFL’s ability to address. This is a league driven by 32 mostly 65-and-over white billionaires who view players as business assets or worse, some admittedly so. Even if they made a sincere attempt to address systemic, cultural issues of domestic violence, it’s difficult to imagine them doing anything helpful or productive.
The solution here is not another new NFL policy, and it probably isn’t tweeting angrily about how organizations ought to find more functional moral compasses (though I’m certainly guilty of the latter). The solution is speaking truth to power in a much broader sense. It’s the #MeToo movement, the #TimesUp movement, the brave women (and men) who have told their stories to the world in the hopes of making us all better, the activists who dedicate their lives to that betterment.
The answer is nothing less than real social progress, and expecting a multibillion-dollar company to lead this sort of societal change out of an independent sense of morality is, at the very least, wildly naive.
In the end, then, I may have been right the first time. This is about what our society has been willing to tolerate and how we need to change to be better. This is about doing more than paying lip service to what we believe is right. It’s about sexism, about the legal system, about a culture of acceptance that has been allowed to run rampant for far too long.
It has nothing to do with Reuben Foster’s football ability.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.