Should The NFL Give Domestic Abusers A Second Chance?

We live in the land of second chances. We have cliche phrases we all default to about how everyone deserves one. In this #MeToo era, there has been think piece after think piece about who gets punished, when, for how long, and who deserves a second chance.

The sports world, in particular, loves a good second-chance story.

Last month, the San Francisco 49ers cut linebacker Reuben Foster following his latest arrest on domestic violence charges in Tampa, Florida. According to the police report, “Foster slapped [the woman’s] phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the left side of her face. Officers observed a one-inch scratch on the victim’s left collarbone.”

The woman is Elissa Ennis, who has had an on-and-off relationship with Foster for years. She had reported him earlier this year for domestic violence, later recanting under oath, something she now says was a lie. There was also a domestic disturbance in October in Santa Clara, California, involving Foster and Ennis, but no arrests were made.

Two whole days after Foster’s initial November arrest, the Washington NFL team claimed him. Foster was then immediately placed on the commissioner exempt list, meaning he cannot practice or attend games until the NFL completes its investigation and makes a determination on whether he violated its policy. Foster continues to be paid.

Washington’s president, Bruce Allen, said he had conducted his own “investigation of sorts,” according to ESPN’s Lisa Salters, meaning, “he utilized Tampa-area contacts he developed during his time as general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.” The team did not go into specifics about who those people were, but Ennis was not among them, according to her attorney. The Tampa Police also weren’t contacted.

Doug Williams, senior vice president of player personnel for the NFL, said the front office was united in its decision to sign Foster and called the incident “small potatoes” when speaking to a local sports radio show. He added, “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.” (He later apologized.)

Washington’s head coach Jay Gruden told reporters, “[Foster’s] a young player. He’s made a mistake or two. At the end of the day, we decided to take a chance and deal with it.”

What even happened here? How could Foster go from domestic violence charges that led one NFL team to cut him to the roster of another in mere days? The obvious answer was provided by Gruden: Washington decided to give Foster another chance.

Ennis told “Good Morning America” that Foster getting picked up that quickly felt like a “slap in the face.”

"The second chance of the victim, not that of the person who harmed them, should be our paramount concern."

“The second chance of the victim, not that of the person who harmed them, should be our paramount concern.”

When it comes to gendered violence, we rarely hold those who harm accountable the first (few) times they commit violence, if ever. Their so-called “second” chance is often just their first chance continuing on the way it always has, without disruption and with little consequence for their actions. There is no push for rehabilitation or change.

Calling it a “second chance” lets those who offer that chance off the hook, too. Giving them an out is often undemanding because the person doing so doesn’t have to take any responsibility for what happens next; merely giving a “second chance” is enough and they can wipe their hands clean, pushing all accountability back onto the person they are enabling.

And so, “second chances” are very easy to hand out, especially when the person granting them’s biggest risk in doing so is receiving a “beat-up … from PR.”

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that this kind of redemption can carry serious, sometimes fatal consequences: “The Post found that more than one-third of all men who killed a current or former intimate partner were publicly known to be a potential threat to their loved one ahead of the attack.”

Every domestic violence case will be different because this kind of harm and violence involves two people whose lives, finances and families are often intertwined in ways that are hard to unravel with a cookie-cutter response. As Diana Moskovitz has written, there cannot be a zero-tolerance policy because “domestic violence can’t be ended; it can be addressed.”

To do this, she argues, “It will require doing something truly radical: treating players and their wives like human beings.” There are no easy solutions to these difficult and complicated problems.

It is not that people should never get second chances ― they should, if they’ve earned them.

The thing is, domestic violence victims themselves believe in second chances for perpetrators as much as, or perhaps more than, most. In her interview with “Good Morning America,” Ennis said that earlier this year she recanted a report that Foster had physically assaulted her because “I did what I had to do for the person I love. I thought that he would change.”

Many domestic violence victims recant for this reason. One study found that victims recant because of emotional appeals, rather than threats, from the person who harmed them. “Abusers minimized the abuse and spoke of depression and loneliness, appealing to the victim’s sympathy,” according to Reuters. Everyone deserves a second chance, don’t they?

It is not that people should never get second chances ― they should, if they’ve earned them.

Whenever this discussion begins anew, I always think about Jane McManus’ well-reasoned argument that Ray Rice probably deserved one. But we have asked almost nothing of Foster (as we rarely do with men reported for harm, unless, of course, their violence is caught on video, and still, that is only true for certain people). The Washington NFL team certainly doesn’t seem concerned about things like growth or change.

At this point, we shouldn’t expect the NFL, Roger Goodell, team owners, the NFLPA, or teams themselves to do the right thing. They can’t even talk about this in a sensitive way, forget making careful decisions about any of it. And while I don’t think most abusers deserve more chances, it’s foolish to think that the league and its members will not continue to deal with these issues on a very public, national scale. We will keep having these conversations.

And so, when making decisions about how to move forward after reports of violence, think of what victims of domestic violence need and want, their stories and experiences, and the impact of our decisions on their lives should be our focus. Their second chance, not that of the person who harmed them, should be our paramount concern.

Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”

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