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A couple years back, when rumors surfaced that the local NFL team was giving thought to signing accused domestic abuser and generally unpleasant-seeming human being Greg Hardy, I wrote the following paragraph in a column here in City Paper.

If the team signs Greg Hardy, the message will not only be that the franchise cares more about football than about people, but that the culture hasn’t really changed at all, that the same terrible decisions are being made anew. Signing this particular garbage human would restore the team’s reputation as a garbage franchise.

To their credit, the team—then under the guidance of then-new general manager Scot McCloughan—did not pursue Hardy. Neither did anyone else.

In the two years since then, Hardy appears to be done with the NFL and is now a professional fighter in the UFC. McCloughan was dismissed from the Washington football team under an apparent smear campaign of innuendo. The team has remained officially mired in mediocrity, never quite able to escape the shadows of their past idiocies even while not committing any notable new ones.

And then they put in a claim for Reuben Foster, another accused domestic abuser and generally unpleasant-seeming human, who was cut by his previous team for being put in jail on a recent domestic violence charge. Washington immediately claimed him off waivers. This, as I predicted in those similar circumstances years ago, has immediately restored the team’s reputation as a garbage franchise.

The sort of fan who tries to justify their team adding horrible people will argue that Washington now has a young, highly-touted first-round talent locked into his affordable rookie contract with no guaranteed money. This point of view—which Washington has encouraged with an official statement about how rigorously they’re going to evaluate the charges against Foster before he’s on the field—argues that it’s a no-risk deal. If the allegations turn out to be spurious—(or, and I’m just spitballing here, if the accuser suddenly recants her statement in the face of threats or coercion)—the team will see an on-the-field benefit. Foster will flourish surrounded by a substantial number of his college teammates, they say, Washington having drafted heavily from the successful Alabama program in recent years. (Because when I think about trying to encourage someone to clean up their act, the obvious path to success is surrounding him with his college bros.)

And if the allegations prove true, or Foster just turns out to be an irredeemable jackass, the team can cut him and move on, no harm done except for yet another PR hit in an endless, tiresome litany of them.

But I keep thinking about Greg Hardy. When the Cowboys cut him, it wasn’t because of the allegations. It wasn’t even entirely because Deadspin posted pictures of his accuser’s injuries, although that’s largely how it’s remembered. Here’s how The MMQB’s Robert Klemko described Hardy’s last days with Dallas, writing in June of this year as Hardy’s mixed martial arts career took off: “[A]fter the Deadspin story, Cowboys sources say Hardy’s mood soured. He slept through meetings and practiced in a fog, and as he went, so went his impressionable young teammates.”

I was working for the team during one of Washington’s previous dalliances with a “troubled” player, the never-ending Albert Haynesworth drama, and I can say without any qualification that it took over the building and sucked all the oxygen out of the season. It didn’t matter if he occasionally did good things (I remember him giving new TVs to all the receptionists in the building) or sometimes managed to produce on the field. It became the story that everyone had to either speak to or be accused of avoiding, and that is draining. It also sent a very clear message that to the team decision makers, a player could get away with pretty much anything provided that they could be trusted to perform on the field. There are ramifications to this kind of move beyond the salary cap and on-field production, and it’s hard to think of any of them that could be positive.

More to the point, the fact that there are this many stories to refer back to—and the Haynesworth and Hardy and Foster of it all are just the easy ones to come up with—emphasizes that the concerns go beyond any single incident. There is a fundamental, systemic flaw with this franchise, a supreme confidence in its own invincibility, dating back to the days when the franchise really was the biggest show in town and really could get away with whatever they wanted.

Each year that passes without significant, sustained success widens that flaw into a gap, and each tone-deaf incident like this widens the gap into a chasm. Foster is just the latest wedge driven into the fissure.

Photo by C Watts on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.