The NFL, for reasons neither apparent nor obvious, chose not to place 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster on the Commissioner’s Exempt list after the 2017 first-rounder was charged with three felonies arising from an alleged incident of domestic violence. The 49ers have decided to handle the situation on their own.
“Reuben Foster will not participate in team activities as he is tending to his legal matters,” the 49ers said in a joint statement from CEO Jed York, G.M. John Lynch, and coach Kyle Shanahan. “As previously stated, his future with the team will be determined by the information revealed during the legal process.”
Given that the wheels of justice can often grind slowly, this could mean the Foster will miss the offseason program, training camp, the preseason, and all or part of the regular season — if “tending to his legal matters” means “until the legal situation is resolved.”
It’s unclear why the 49ers are hinging Foster’s future on the legal process; all teams (and the league itself) have the capacity to investigate situations like this, and to come to their own conclusions independent of the decisions made by the criminal justice system. Indeed, the NFL decided in the aftermath of the Ray Rice debacle to no longer defer to the authorities when deciding what to do about a player who allegedly engaged in off-field misconduct.
For Foster, the simple reality is that if he were a fringe player, he’d already have been cut. His status as a first rounder who played well as a rookie has bought him some time and a sliver of the benefit of the doubt. Sunday’s move allows the 49ers to avoid the P.R. consequences of allowing Foster to participate in the offseason program (and likely beyond) while the matter is pending.
The 49ers likely lack the authority to make this move, absent Foster’s consent. It’s possible, if Foster didn’t consent to the decision, that Foster will push back against the effort to keep him out of the building. If he pushes too hard, however, the 49ers could simply do what they would have done if he weren’t regarded as a good player: Cut him loose.