Poe’s Perspective: NFL consistently fails to deal with abuse

The NFL is never going to give a crap about domestic violence.

This is something I’ve been resigned to for a while, just another reason to resent this league and this sport as football continues to become less fun and more dirty. Of course, there’s countless institutions in the country that don’t really care about women — just look at the way victims of sexual assault and violence are pushed aside in national narratives on a weekly basis.

So it’s not surprising that the NFL — an organization which claimed that football didn’t cause concussions, that openly muzzles its own players to avoid stepping into the spotlight — would similarly ignore the plight of the women its players abuse.

This week was yet another reminder of that stark truth, as linebacker Reuben Foster spent less than 48 hours unemployed after he was arrested for domestic violence and released by the San Francisco 49ers.

It wasn’t Foster’s first offense, or his second. It’s his second arrest for domestic violence, and his third total arrest in 2018 alone. Yet somehow, the Washington Redskins decided that despite all of these moral and legal faults, Foster’s ability to rush the passer and elude blockers is somehow worth employment. He was picked up off the waiver wire and given a new position on a new team, a weekly place in the national spotlight and a fat paycheck to boot.

The thing about this league is that it’s made rules that are, at the very least, a step in the right direction. According to the NFL player’s handbook, a first-time offense of domestic violence should be met with a minimum six-week suspension. That would seem like a reasonable punishment to fit a crime — perhaps a bit lenient, but at least a somewhat hefty amount of time to sit on the sidelines — if it was ever actually used.

But that’s simply not the case. This rule has only been enforced a handful of times in its history, most noticeably on Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. Despite the multitudes of allegations, settlements and cases won against NFL players each season, it’s rare to see a team choose to enforce preexisting rules and guidelines.

This, of course, is ironic at  best and damning at worst when considering the frequency with which the NFL and its teams enforce other rules about athlete conduct. The league doles out plenty of suspensions and fines for a multitude of infractions — insider trading, drug use, over-inflating balls.

Chicago linebacker Jerrell Freeman, for instance, has been suspended for over 30 games for using performance enhancing drugs. That suspension is eight times as harsh as the one that Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith received after his former girlfriend alleged that he physically abused her during a custody dispute.

So what’s the difference? Why does the NFL waver between strict enforcement and lax ignorance?

In dealing with these issues, the NFL finds a route to cop out by increasing its strictness in incidents that directly involve the game of football. PEDs, taunting, spearing, targeting — these rules all have to do with the actual game between the lines. They are easy to enforce because they’re out in the open constantly, directly visible for fans to see every Sunday (and Thursday and Monday).

But domestic violence is something that happens in the shadows. It’s not broadcasted on television and it doesn’t dominate headlines. When it comes to football, reporters and broadcast hosts are more likely to talk about statistics and spreads than the brutal off-the-field behavior of its stars. Domestic violence is easy to hide for the NFL because everyone outside of the league — fans and reporters alike — are willing to quickly forget it.

The burden, then, now rests on us, the fans and the media. It shouldn’t be on us. It should be on the league, the teams, the coaches and, ultimately, the men who are committing these crimes. But the football community as a whole must choose to become enforcers when it comes to domestic violence. If the NFL won’t do it on its own, then so be it. But the fans and the media must come together to refuse to forget the violence inflicted on these women.

On Sunday, Reuben Foster might lace up his cleats and take the field and become a star. He could become another body in a helmet and a jersey who young fans look up to as a role model, an inspiration, despite the violence in his past.

When it comes to football, this is a pattern we have expected too many times, for much too long. At some point, it has to stop. Why not now?

Julia Poe is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” ran Thursdays.