There is no line between sports and hard news. I’ve written it before and it remains true. The trickiness of navigating such a landscape is never more clear than when athletes make appearances in the police blotter.
The 49ers are in what might charitably be called a difficult position. Reuben Foster, a linebacker who they see as a major part of their future, has run afoul of the law for the second time in a month. This time, unlike his comparably quaint arrest for marijuana possession in January, he is accused of deeply disturbing crimes — specifically domestic violence, making criminal threats and possession of an assault weapon.
The additional information to emerge since Foster’s arrest and subsequent release on $75,000 bail does not improve the optics. According to the Mercury News, he has been accused of dragging a woman across his apartment in an attempt to remove her from the premises, after he had thrown her belongings onto a walkway and balcony. The alleged victim told police that there would be multiple assault rifles in the house, and they discovered one.
What happens next with Foster and the Niners is uncertain. The fundamental question is a relatively simple one — at this point, they can either cut him or not.
The moral approach is asking, “What is the right thing to do?” The 49ers have probably already chosen not to ask the question in this way, because if they had, they would have cut Foster already. The oft-cited concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is for the courts. The NFL’s contract structure allows most players to be cut at any time with little-to-no financial penalty, and the 49ers have already shown they’re willing to take that drastic action when they cut Tramaine Brock last year the day after an arrest in a domestic violence case for which no charges were ultimately filed.
There is no steadfast policy on how to handle players accused of crimes, domestic violence or otherwise.
“As those situations arise and, hopefully, there won’t be a lot them,” Lynch said after Brock’s release, ”we’re going to treat each one of them as a unique and different situation.”
Even with those qualifying statements, that year-old move certainly felt like a stand on principle. I don’t think there’s much doubt that 49ers CEO Jed York would like to be able to find a foothold on moral high ground. But if we interpret cutting Brock as an ethical decision to any degree, don’t we have to admit that they have already opted not to make an equally principled choice with Foster?
They are showing that the football value of a player has a bearing on how many chances he gets to fall in line and behave responsibly.
The question, then, becomes: At what point do the negatives surrounding Foster outweigh his positive impact on the team’s on-field performance? As opposed to the earlier moral issue, this is a business question. And that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring ethics or human decency, but it does mean they’re assigning a quantitative value to it.
They have to weigh York’s presumed desire for integrity, potential damage to the reputation of the team among fans and effects on the locker room. They also have to try to sort out some version of the truth — it may not be critically important to them in and of itself, but in 2018 the truth is going to be exposed eventually, and the 49ers must know everything that might come out.
Undoubtedly, they already know more than anyone not connected to the event, and it may be that what they know has them convinced of Foster’s innocence. But all we can say for certain at this point is that what they know is not enough to convince them that a 23-year-old linebacker with All-Pro potential has become a lost cause.
As a business, the 49ers organization has to be expected to operate with financial and football success as primary motivators. The talent-tolerance scale is a fact of life, and not just in the sports world.
I’ve heard a number of non-athletes say something to the effect of, “If it was me, I’d lose my job,” and that may be true — but if you had a specific, elite set of skills that your employer would have to spend twice your salary to replace, you’d get chances too. Is it right? Perhaps not, but it’s business and nobody’s asking that question.
If this case progresses to a point where the 49ers believe it will significantly hurt business, they will take action. We’ve repeatedly seen, though, that this is a league where even convicted criminals can be embraced and find success.
If we want to ask questions about Foster as a person, we’re entering very speculative territory. We know he provided a diluted urine sample for a drug test at the NFL Draft Combine. We know he was sent home from that combine after an altercation with a hospital worker. We know he was arrested for marijuana possession a month ago. We know a SIG Sauer 516 short-barreled rifle was confiscated from the house where he was arrested this weekend.
This collection of facts is certainly concerning; but we don’t really know Reuben Foster. Whether he’ll even be charged in this case, or whether those charges would be misdemeanors or felonies, is still very much in question. Exactly what happened in that house may never be known.
There’s also the very legitimate argument that, even if he’s guilty of some version of the ugly allegations, a 23-year-old deserves an opportunity to rehabilitate. There will absolutely be an NFL team (the Dallas Cowboys always spring to mind in these situations) willing to sign Foster behind that argument if the Niners do release him. But more to the point, if he is either cleared by the legal system or pays whatever “debt to society” is demanded of him, who is a football team to impose some grander ethical punishment?
My knee-jerk reaction is the moral one — I generally abhor violence, I have learned to believe victims, and what I have been taught about domestic violence makes it difficult for me to believe that someone in Foster’s position is innocent.
But it’s easy for me to moralize as an individual operating free from business incentive. It’s pain-free, it costs me nothing in public perception beyond perhaps being labeled a liberal cupcake. Large business organizations aren’t held to the same moral standards as individual human beings, and maybe they shouldn’t be.
I would have cut Foster on Sunday night, and though it might do some damage to the roster I’m confident it would be possible to find an adequate replacement with fewer legal issues. But the business that is the 49ers has chosen to play this out, and I simply can’t craft a convincing business argument against that.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.