We must learn from Doug Williams’ harmful Reuben Foster comments

The San Francisco 49ers have released linebacker Reuben Foster after he was arrested on charges of domestic violence. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

On Tuesday, the Washington Redskins claimed linebacker Reuben Foster just two days after he’d been released by the San Francisco 49ers. This is troubling for many reasons, with Foster’s recent domestic violence arrest topping the list.

Foster was arrested at a Tampa Bay hotel for allegedly striking and pushing Elissa Ennis, with whom he has had an on-and-off relationship over the past three years. Foster was booked into jail but released soon after on $2,000 bail.

This isn’t his first arrest of this kind. According to The Associated Press, police responded to a similar incident between the two in October, and Ennis also accused Foster of hitting her in February but later recanted the allegations. The 24-year-old was also arrested on a gun charge and for misdemeanour marijuana possession, which resulted in a two-game suspension at the beginning of this season.

But he’s just 24 years old, and is good at football. So, the Redskins quickly claimed his rights and released the following statement from Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams as justification for the roster move, accompanied by a promise to investigate his case.

Washington Redskins on Twitter

A statement from the Washington Redskins Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams:

Just as the 49ers were praised for cutting ties with a player with a known history of domestic violence, the Redskins were widely criticized for the decision to pick him up. And on Thursday, Williams made the situation much worse with some extremely tone-deaf comments about the allegations against his newly-acquired linebacker, who will sit on the commissioner’s exempt list over the course of his upcoming investigation.

During a radio appearance on The Team 980 on Thursday, Williams defended his team’s decision to take a flyer on Foster and in doing so, made a bad situation much worse.

“We knew there was going to be some backlash, and we understand that, and rightfully so,” Williams told Walker (transcription courtesy of The Washington Post.) “I’ve got six daughters, so it ain’t something I would condone, but at the same time I think we are in the business of at least looking into [his case]. I could sit here, and I won’t, name a bunch of teams that took on players that got a lot of baggage that nobody’s saying anything about. You can’t get into nitpicking what they do and what you do. You gotta look at it from your standpoint.”

Normally, actions speak louder than words — and the speed at which the Redskins claimed Foster after he was cut by San Francisco speaks volumes. But this is a case in which the accompanying words are also pretty telling when it comes to the league’s overarching attitude towards violence against women.

It’s important to point out that on Friday, Williams apologized for his comments made on-air. He got up in front of Washington media and seemed to speak honestly and showed remorse. Good on him for doing so — hopefully he has learned from this — though it doesn’t change the fact the team still hold’s Foster’s rights.

Matthew Paras on Twitter

Here’s the video of Doug Williams’ apology https://t.co/1JzVZv3j0r

As for Thursday’s radio comments, it’s also important that we all learn from Williams’ words, which means highlighting why they’re so harmful in the first place.

First, and let’s make this as clear as possible, you don’t need to have daughters to understand why domestic abuse is not OK, and the act of having daughters doesn’t automatically excuse you from condoning any kind of violence against women. There’s also no need to contextualize women by placing them into the categories of being someone’s daughter, sister or mother in order to understand what role they play in our society.

Williams’ next step on Thursday was to downplay the seriousness of the allegations against Foster by pointing fingers at the bad things other people have been accused of doing, which actually just further proves the point he’s trying to argue against. See, pointing out others’ poor decisions doesn’t make yours any less so. Rather, this argument just goes to show what a mess the league has gotten itself into after decades of turning a blind eye to wrongdoings off the field in favour of wins on it.

“Washington is Washington, and we’re the Redskins, and you’re going to get a lot of flak regardless,” Williams said. “I’m sure if anybody else had picked him, they would have got a lot of flak . . . At the same time, we got his name, but he’s not in uniform. He can’t be in uniform, so it’s not like we expect to win a game with him tomorrow because he won’t be dressed up, he won’t be suited. We don’t know whether he will be suited. We have to wait a while to find out what really happens with him.”

There’s another argument typically raised in cases such as this: If we didn’t take him, somebody else would have. That is, unfortunately, true — we’ve seen it time and time again, especially when you’re dealing with a player as young and talented as Foster, but it still doesn’t make it right. It’s reasonable for an executive — and a former player like Williams, at that — to want to rehabilitate a player who is so clearly troubled. But based on his short time in the league so far, it seems like the football field is not the best place to do so.

“Basically what you’re doing here is you’re taking a high-risk chance. The high risk was the beat-up that we’re going to take from PR. We understood that from a PR standpoint, and we’re taking it,” Williams continued on Thursday. “The most important thing is, we’re hoping that things come out and it wasn’t the way that everything has been perceived. We don’t know that. We have to wait and see. If things are as bad as it’s made out to be, he might not get a chance to play for us. We don’t know.”

Williams called claiming Foster “a high-risk chance,” suggesting the “beat-up we’re going to take from PR” is the worst part of this mess – never mind the actual issue at hand, and the perpetuation of the continued talent-trumps-all approach to issues of domestic violence in pro sports.

Now, here’s where we get to what is perhaps the most troubling part of Williams’ ill-advised radio appearance on Thursday:

“We’ve got people who are in high, high, high, high places that have done far worse, and if you look at it realistically, they’re still up there. This is small potatoes [compared to] a lot of things out there,” Williams said. “But at the same time it’s a big issue in America today, whether or not it’s in football, whether or not it’s in everyday life, whether or not it’s in politics, it’s out there.”

Foster’s issues aren’t, of course, small potatoes but rather serious allegations that should be recognized as such. And Williams’ decision to so unabashedly downplay them is a harsh reminder of why those in positions of power (in the league and elsewhere) probably shouldn’t be.

Clearly, we’ve still got a long way to go in cases like this. But maybe, hopefully, we can learn from this. It’s absolutely necessary that we do.

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