At about 8 p.m. (EST) on Saturday night, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was about to enter a team meeting at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. That’s when he learned that talented yet troubled linebacker Reuben Foster had been involved in an incident.
According to a police report, Foster and a woman — alleged to be on-and-off girlfriend Elissa Ennis — were involved in a verbal altercation earlier that evening, which turned violent when Foster slapped the victim’s phone out of her hand, pushed her in her chest and slapped her with an open hand. Foster was arrested on one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic-violence battery. It wasn’t Foster’s first brush with the law, and it wasn’t even his first incident this season.
“If that was another player that hadn’t ever been in something like this before, we would’ve been a lot more patient,” Shanahan said. “‘Hey, yeah, that’s a horrible accusation. Let’s hear what it is and let’s find out and let’s try to get to the bottom of the truth.’ In this situation, because of what we’d been through before, that didn’t matter. I already knew that. It sucks. He’s done here.”
After the team kicked off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Foster posted $2,000 bail and was released from jail. On Monday, under the weight of Foster’s repeated poor decision making, he was officially released, and Shanahan, in his weekly press conference, gave deep, wide-ranging answers to questions about Foster and about the team’s judgement, holding himself and the organization to account.
“There’s not many things in this world more wrong than domestic violence,” Shanahan said. “Everyone in our building are just like other people. We feel extremely strong about that and will always support that. I don’t know exactly what happened between Reuben and the accuser. But, after this happened a second time with the same person in our hotel, I think that decision making was enough for us to move on.”
It was the third time that Foster, the former 31st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has been tied to domestic violence in less than a year, and his fourth brush with the law.
In January, Foster was charged with second-degree marijuana possession in Alabama. In his Los Gatos home on Feb. 11, Foster was involved in a dispute with Ennis, after which he was charged for domestic violence, making criminal threats and weapons possession (a Sig Sauer 516 SBR).
In May, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled there was no probable cause on the first two charges in the February incident, after Ennis recanted the allegations, saying variously that she wanted to get him cut from the team as revenge for wanting to break up with her, and that it was a “money scheme.” The weapons charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and Foster pleaded no contest to that in June. He was sentenced to two years of probation, 232 hours of community service and issued a $235 fine.
On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Foster and Ennis had a verbal altercation this October which merited a call to the police. Shanahan was not aware of that incident.
“We … knew Rueben had a string of making bad decisions,” Shanahan said. “We knew that when we took him. We thought he would improve and we were going to do everything we could to help him. And Reuben did improve in some things. But, you know, for that to come up for what did happen last year or earlier in this year, and then for what happened Saturday with the same person at a team hotel, it’s just hard to comprehend how you could put yourself in that situation again.”
Shanahan declared last spring, after Foster’s first incident, that the 49ers would have a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of domestic violence.
“We can promise, if there’s someone who ever hits their significant other, girlfriends, that person is not going to be on our team,” Shanahan said at the time.
The 49ers came close to cutting Foster after the initial accusations, Shanahan admitted, but a face-to-face conversation with the outwardly affable Foster prompted them to take him at his word that he was not guilty, and soon after, Ennis recanted her original accusations.
Nevertheless, San Francisco assigned director of player engagement Austin Moss II to go to Foster’s residence daily, and check in with him on the phone. They placed him in a corner of the locker room flanked by veteran cornerback Richard Sherman and veteran offensive tackle Joe Staley.
“I think a lot of the players and coaches, we really wanted to help Reuben out,” Shanahan said. “I had a number of players, when I told them yesterday, they apologized. They were like, ‘Sorry, Kyle. Wish we could have done more.'”
The 49ers stopped short of assigning someone to live with Foster.
“We’re not here to just babysit him and make sure that, ‘Hey, don’t ever mess up so you hurt us from winning games.’ We’re here to help guys become better people,” Shanahan said. “And if you have to sit there and spy on them every second, I promise you that might sound good, but … I don’t think that worked out well [when other teams have done that].”
The 49ers were clear with Foster, though: If he stepped out of line again, or if evidence showed he was guilty, that would be the day he’d be cut.
“You are a little bit more patient with him in some of those areas knowing what his upbringing has been, knowing that he seems like he is genuine in how he is working to get better at it,” Shanahan said. “So, I think a lot of the players and coaches, we really wanted to help Reuben out.”
Despite the constant checks on Foster since the incident on February, it was not well-known, at least to Shanahan, that Foster and Ennis had reconciled, nor was the team aware of the incident in October. Shanahan was aware that Foster had spoken with Ennis, and asked him about her, but by no means, Shanahan said, did he think they were living together or even dating again.
“I’m not okay with [domestic violence] regardless,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know exactly what happened. Obviously, any time you’re dealing with domestic violence or anything like that, when there is a victim in domestic violence.”
Asked Monday if he believes Foster now, Shanahan said, “I don’t think it totally matters.”
“I don’t think it’s totally fair to say that. You’d like to believe people,” Shanahan continued. “I do usually when they look you in the eye and tell you stuff. There’s a part of Reuben, and I don’t think everyone is from the same situations that I was growing up. I think everyone’s in a different situation. I think I’ve heard of, just being in the profession I’m in, I’ve heard of some really bad situations of kids growing up. Reuben grew up in as bad of one as I’ve ever heard. That’s where I feel that it’s been hard for him to be the same way as everyone else.”
Foster’s estranged father spent 16 years as a fugitive after shooting ex-girlfriend Inita Berry Paige and their son — 19-month old Reuben — in February of 1996.
In college, Foster was present for but not involved in a triple homicide in a nightclub. One of the dead: Foster’s friend, Recco Cobb, 43, shot dead by the assailant, his relative Tarabien Latrent Cobb.
At the NFL Draft Combine, Foster gave a diluted urine sample during drug testing, got into an argument with a hospital worker and was sent home. He was a top-five talent, but fell to San Francisco at the end of the first round because other teams had taken him off their draft boards completely.
“That’s why we waited and didn’t take him where we thought he was valued because we knew he was slipping and there were some risks,” Shanahan said. “Once he got to where he was, we felt good at that point at taking him. There were things that we believed we could help him with.”
Foster’s upbringing and personal history weren’t as filled with red flags as other players’, general manager John Lynch said on Sunday, and Foster certainly was a talent, ranking second on the 49ers as rookie with 72 tackles despite missing six games due to injury.
“We have to learn from the process,” Lynch said. “We have and we will, but at the same time, you can’t play scared. You’ve got to trust your evaluations … They’re fallible. His [issue] wasn’t nearly as bad as a lot of them. Ultimately, we have to own it, and I own it.”
Lynch repeatedly said on Sunday that Foster failed to “protect the team,” a phrase that rubbed many the wrong way, particularly because it shifted victimhood from the actual victim of the alleged sexual violence to a multi-billion dollar organization. Shanahan clarified.
“Protect the team is for every single person in our organization to know that there’s not one person who is bigger than this organization,” Shanahan said. “… It doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, protect the team so we don’t look bad.’ It means understand that you have a responsibility and you are not bigger than our organization and you cannot do things and think that it’s just you. You represent our place. We want people to represent our place right and that isn’t just from perception standpoint. I want it to be real. I hope it comes off that way. But, protect the team is really a reality check of what our world is like. You work for a place that, I don’t care how good you are, this place is bigger than you and you need to understand that.”