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Washington Claims Reuben Foster, Sending the Message That Winning Matters Most

Foster, drafted by the 49ers in 2017, may never play a down of football for Washington, but the team claiming him off waivers sends the wrong message—the linebacker needs help, not another NFL contract.

In one of the more cynical NFL transactions you will ever see, Washington claimed Reuben Foster off waivers today. On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers released the troubled linebacker after Tampa police said Foster slapped his on-again off-again girlfriend, knocked a phone out of her hand and pushed her in the chest the day before the team was to play the Buccaneers in Tampa. Washington was reportedly the only team to put a claim in for the linebacker, and the NFL subsequently placed him on the Commisioner Exempt list as the league continues to review his investigation.

Foster, who found himself in a well-publicized physical confrontation with a hospital worker at the 2017 NFL combine, has demonstrated reliably that he should not be enabled by an NFL team's insulation from scrutiny or an NFL direct deposit. Consistently, women who are abused by athletes say the abusive mentality, and their own concessions to their abusers, are exacerbated by the abuser staying employed.

Foster needs real help, not another NFL contract, if only to save his alleged victim and/or future victims from his abuse.

He needs the kind of help he got at Alabama with Nick Saban and his staff. If Saban is to be believed when he says there were never any serious incidents with Foster at the school, it's because the school created a support network which Saban warned Foster could struggle without.

Before the 2017 NFL draft, Saban told me he hoped Foster’s agent and future team would provide a comprehensive support network like the one Foster built at Alabama in order to ease his transition. In a rare moment of public candor for any head coach discussing a prospect headed for the NFL, Saban said Foster needed people around him who could anticipate and intervene in his moods.

“I think it’s important that he has people around him who will provide him good direction, have good experience and the ability to anticipate what’s happening, so you don’t get these emotional responses to things that are insignificant,” Saban said at the time.

Saban knew what many NFL teams surmised, and what the 49ers came to understand at a high price: Foster's background and upbringing in Roanoke, Ala., was among the most dire you will ever hear of, and Foster is a deeply flawed product of that origin. In February 1996, Danny Foster allegedly shot ex-girlfriend Inita Berry Paige and their 19-month-old son, Reuben. Mother and son survived. The elder Foster was indicted by a grand jury that year before he fled to California. When he was arrested and extradited to Randolph County, he managed to escape from county jail that December. In February 2013, four days after Foster officially committed to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, his estranged father was arrested in Miami after 16 years as a fugitive.

Alabama could offer what no NFL team can: poverty and proximity. They could keep him close to the football facility and manage more of his day to day than any NFL team can or will, and they didn’t have to pay him for his services. As an unpaid college athlete, there was a powerful light at the end of the tunnel: an NFL contract. Now what’s supposed to keep Foster in line? The goalposts have moved, and Foster hasn’t properly adjusted his motivations.

"You are a little bit more patient with him in some of those areas knowing what his upbringing has been, knowing that he seems like he is genuine in how he is working to get better at it," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said in a press conference this week. "So, I think a lot of the players and coaches, we really wanted to help Reuben out. I had a number of players, when I told them yesterday, they apologized. They were like, ‘Sorry, Kyle. Wish we could have done more. We really wanted to help.’ That’s kind of how we all felt. We were all pulling for Reuben and it didn’t work out."

One of the players the 49ers hoped could mentor Foster was Richard Sherman, the veteran cornerback and former Seahawks all-pro whose locker was strategically placed next to Foster's. But no amount of counseling, from Sherman or anyone else, can save some players from themselves and the people they hurt. Now Washington is taking the leap, and it's a calculated one for a team that is 6–5 and tied for the lead in the NFC East.

If they can do with Foster what San Francisco couldn't, they get a talented linebacker at a bargain price. If Foster screws up and embarrasses the organization, they figure they can take the PR hit, simply cut him and move on after getting whatever use out of him they can, pending a potential suspension from the NFL for his latest arrest. Never mind the people Foster may hurt. Never mind the potentially-damaged young man who needs more help than a mentor at his side and the close eye of a player development staffer or position coach. 

Doug Williams, Washington's senior vice president of player personnel, can promise counseling for his newest employee all he wants. It won't change the very clear message Foster's signing signals to anyone listening: Winning matters. People don't.