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When it comes to domestic violence, stop expecting NFL teams to do the right thing

For real change, pressure must be applied elsewhere.

On the evening of Tuesday, November 27th, linebacker Reuben Foster was claimed off waivers by Washington. Mere days earlier he’d been let go by the San Francisco 49ers after being arrested and charged with domestic violence while traveling with the team to Florida. It was Foster’s second arrest for domestic violence (charges were dropped the first time), and third arrest of 2018.

Sadly, the move by Washington to pick up Foster was neither surprising nor unprecedented. The NFL has a long and torrid history of enabling men accused of domestic violence; Foster is simply the latest example.

The rightful outrage that follows each instance consistently has the same undertone of despair. How could this be happening again? How can the league continue to get this oh, so very wrong? Men hit women, NFL teams look the other way, we cry out, and the game plays on, until the next woman suffers a blow from a man emboldened by the cradle of the league. Then we begin the process anew.

As it currently stands, the NFL’s personal conduct policy states that a first-time offense of domestic violence will result in a six-game suspension without pay. And despite other instances of domestic violence since its inception, a six-game suspension has only been enforced once, with Ezekiel Elliott. A second offense will result in a permanent banishment from the NFL — with the term “permanent” used very, very loosely. A second-time offender who has been banished “may petition for reinstatement after one year.” The common saying goes that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But the NFL isn’t insane — it’s simply ruthless. Because they’ve made their disinterest in enforcing an adequate policy very clear.

Adam Schefter reported that Washington was the only team to submit a bid for Foster, a free agent on the waiver wire. And at the end of the day, one team is all it takes. The firestorm directed at the team in the aftermath is valid, but in ways, it can be misguided. The unfortunate truth remains that if it hadn’t been Washington to sign Foster, it would’ve inevitably been another team on another day.

Ultimately we must stop relying on individual NFL teams to “do the right thing.” They won’t, and they’ve showed us as much time and time again. Change must be demanded on a grander scale. If teams are our states and the league is the country, then changes must be implemented on a federal level. When a player is arrested for domestic violence and subsequently dropped from their organization, no other team should be given the opportunity to pick that player up until due process has completed.

Following the signing Doug Williams, Washington’s Senior Vice President of Player Personnel, released a statement explaining the decision. Amongst it all, he assured fans that Foster would be required to take the necessary steps of the Commissioner’s Exempt List before he was allowed to see the field with the team:

Let me be clear, Rueben will have to go through numerous steps including the full legal process, an investigation and potential discipline from the NFL, as well as meetings with counselors associated with the team before he will ever have the opportunity to wear the burgundy and gold as a player.

These conditions, held up by the team as a cowardly shield, are an insult to every fan’s intelligence and memory. There is absolutely no reason a player released on account of a domestic violence arrest should be allowed to find a spot with a new team before completing the aforementioned full legal process, investigation and discipline. None. Foster is a talented NFL player who can improve any roster, but the NFL’s waiver wire should not serve as a race to the benefit of the doubt.

A change such as this would need to be implemented through the player’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Which means that regardless of outside pressure, real progress is only attainable if players come together in support of accountability amongst their peers, and a dedication to ensuring that domestic violence has no place in the league. While the current CBA does not expire until 2021, it is possible to make these changes without prompting an entire renegotiation, as outlined in a 2014 article by Jane McManus.

It’s easy to understand why players would be hesitant to cede more disciplinary power, but the suggestion isn’t a novelty: the current CBA already addresses discipline for performance-enhancing drugs and DUIs. The more say players have in negotiating the discipline themselves, the stronger and more effective the league’s prevention and handling of domestic violence cases will be.

The necessary next steps are on the players, but they’re also on many others. It’s on the media, to continue to call for accountability. It’s on the fans, to make sure their voices are heard when their teams bring on board a player whose actions prove he has no place on any roster. It’s on those in power within the league, perched at the very top of the operation — those who know they’re able to improve conditions and safety for women yet choose to prioritize games in the win column.

What took place between Foster and his girlfriend is a deeply personal tragedy, and it should be approached as such. Ultimately, revisions in the way the league handles such tragedies will only be effective if they are rooted in empathy for all — and not just those that don jerseys and take the field.