Writing about athlete crime often becomes a platform for fans to vent justifiable anger and alleviate any guilt about watching sports. This platform appeared the minute the first word was typed about 49ers’ linebacker Rueben Foster’s arrest Sunday night on suspicion of domestic violence and gun charges.
Justifiable anger was sparked, which underpinned much of the commentary – How could Foster be so selfish in putting his poor choices above the team? What right does he have to embarrass the organization? How could he squander such a brilliant future?
Teams are also the object of anger. How could they not see the warning signs of trouble with the athlete? How much will they bend their organizational ethics to keep the player on the team? How hypocritical will they appear?
On a deeper level, fans and media want to protect their own ethics when watching or covering sports. They don’t want a domestic abuser prancing around on their screen on an NFL Sunday. They don’t want to see the enjoyment of their sport sullied by nagging questions about whether it’s ethical to watch games.
Unfortunately with all this justifiable anger and the challenge to fan ethics, the focus centers on the athlete, the team and sometimes the league. The victim in this equation gets completely lost. Also lost is the adaptation of the best practice in keeping the athlete from abusing again.
In the Foster coverage, speculation concentrated on what kind of punishment would he receive from the NFL? Six games, 10 games, indefinite suspension? And on what should the 49ers do – coach him or cut him?
But other than the fact that she made a 911 call and a report that Foster dragged her through their Los Gatos home, not much was written about alleged victim.
The greatest travesty in the NFL’s treatment of domestic abuse is the culture around victim silence. Victims need to be heeded, heard, supported and encouraged to speak out. Victims’ plights need to be publicized, but they rarely are.
In Fosters’ case, the law and order crowd came out in social media with cut-Foster-now commentary. Others cautioned for patience until more is known. Best practice says that suspensions or release are clearly secondary to Foster’s willingness to seek help, if he perpetrated domestic abuse.
Jeffrey Edleson, dean of the School of Social Welfare at Cal and a leading researcher of domestic abuse, says that 60 to 70 percent of domestic abusers can reform if they complete an extensive treatment program.
According to NFL Network, the 49ers met with Foster on Monday. If Foster is guilty of some form of abuse, his ability to admit his role and be contrite greatly increases his chances for recovery.
However, if Foster blames the victim and denies wrong doing, then that could be a huge issue, particularly if evidence says otherwise. And that’s where the 49ers have to make a decision on Foster despite what the courts may say. Most likely, Foster will either not be charged or be exonerated because domestic abuse is difficult to prove, and Foster can afford to hire an excellent lawyer.
Also, a district attorney won’t bring a case to trial not because they don’t think the perpetrator is guilty, but because they don’t think they can convict.
Another factor to consider is releasing Foster could be the worst outcome for him and his partner if he’s, indeed, guilty. While banishing Foster from playing takes him out of fan purview, which presumably allows the fan to resume watching games guilt free, it’s often worse for the athlete and the victim because they are now cut off from services that could help them.
The problem of domestic violence is thorny and difficult. Consequently, the media should make sure it considers the victim as much as the player, and that pressure is applied to teams and leagues to do what’s best to stop domestic abuse from continuing.
And that course might be different from the universal need to satisfy justifiable anger and to watch games guilt free.