The 49ers crime crisis routine is set, and it would be mundane if it weren’t so embarrassing for a franchise that is recently falling so short of its long-held ideals.
The pattern: A 49ers player gets in some kind of trouble with the authorities, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke issues a terse response indicating little, and the legal process churns on, ever so slowly.
Oh, and the player remains on the team, most especially if he’s a very good player.
That all happened again Sunday, as the Bay Area News Group first reported, when star linebacker Aldon Smith got into an argument with a TSA agent and was detained and booked by LAX police for allegedly making a false report of a bomb threat.
That got the cycle going again: The dents in the 49ers’ reputation, the head-shaking and head-scratching from observers, the criticism and general discussion about the accumulation of so many problems for a team that has also won so many games.
And next, we will all wait for the next shoe to drop, because apparently there will always be a next one, and a next one, and a next one …
Until it stops, though that is the important question: Will the procession of problematic 49ers exploits, particularly in the offseason, ever stop?
And another: How much will the 49ers power-brokers — Baalke, coach Jim Harbaugh and owner Jed York — do to try to make it stop?
Through Smith’s previous legal issues, York and Harbaugh spoke at length about supporting their troubled player and using the moment as a pivot point in Smith’s life. This was not about coddling a good player, they suggested, it was about helping someone in their football family through difficulties.
All well and good; but how many times can you refer to pivot points and growth … if the player doesn’t show many signs of pivoting … or growing?
OK, let’s stop right here and make two things clear:
First, sports franchises aren’t ever going to be fully stocked with angels; team executives are trying to win games and they make most of their choices based on gathering as many players who can help them win as possible, within reason.
The 49ers didn’t build Levi’s Stadium because fans and sponsors loved their character, they built it because people want to see exciting and successful football.
The issue here is how lenient the 49ers have been and how far this can go before the franchise loses much of its direction and dignity.
Second, we don’t yet know what exactly happened with Smith at LAX on Sunday or what the legal repercussions might be. It would be grossly unfair to presume only the worst, though some may accuse me of doing exactly that right now.
But I’m not making assumptions about Smith in this or any instance; I’m just talking about the accumulation of legal miseries that can erode much of what a team wants to say and believe about itself.
So we don’t know about Smith in this incident, just as we don’t know what happened between quarterback Colin Kaepernick, receiver Quinton Patton, ex-49ers receiver Ricardo Lockette and a woman in a Miami hotel earlier this month; we only know Miami police are investigating what they call a “suspicious incident.”
We don’t know how cornerback Chris Culliver’s felony and misdemeanor hit-and-run charges will unfold, or whether any of the many 49ers players who have drawn legal attention recently have all learned great lessons from the experiences.
But we do know that Smith, for one, has had multiple legal issues in recent years, including his DUI arrest last September, two days before the 49ers played Indianapolis.
And we know the 49ers allowed Smith to play in that game — played all 72 defensive snaps, in fact — before Smith entered a rehab center and missed the next five games.
We also know that Harbaugh sniped at the Seattle Seahawks last summer when the Seahawks were undergoing a series of PED suspensions, and Harbaugh added that “you always want to be above reproach, especially when you’re good because you don’t want people to come back and say, ‘They’re winning because they’re cheating.'”
He was speaking specifically about PED use and rule-breaking, and I’ve been told that Baalke was not happy with Harbaugh for the grandiosity of that statement.
But there is no escaping the fact that Harbaugh said those words, which suggest a strong sense of 49ers superiority and a higher standard for themselves.
That is fine — great teams should have great standards and if you meet all standards and if your players don’t end up on the crime blotter every other week, you have a right to crow.
But if you can’t keep your players out of trouble and if you are seen to tolerate bad behavior in the pursuit of victory, then you are going to hear about it.
–Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News
Jed York sees to it that the family pays his football team’s human resources department a princely sum to say this several times a year:
“We are disappointed to learn of the incident today involving (Miscellaneous 49er). As this is a pending legal matter and we are still gathering the pertinent facts, we will have no further comment.”
Typically the quote is attributed to general manager Trent Baalke, but trust us. As soon as he gets the phone call that “Miscellaneous” has gotten crossways with the cops, he knows what HR will tell him to say, and it’s that. It’s always that.
He was quoted that way Sunday after linebacker Aldon Smith’s arrest at Los Angeles International Airport on a charge making a false report of a bomb at a TSA security gate.
Baalke has had to pretend to be the author of that sentence fairly frequently the past year or so, and frankly, we have all wearied of Baalke pretending to invoke the franchise’s Fifth Amendment rights. It is time – past time, honestly – for York to explain just what his franchise does and does not stand for.
We claim this not because we need to see his cherubic mush trot out Good Old Answer No. 1 – “We are disappointed to hear blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah.” It’s because the 49ers are getting The Reputation, and unlike the Raiders of the ‘70s, The Reputation isn’t nearly as charming.
Like Colin Kaepernick’s brush with infamy earlier this week, the Smith matter remains “alleged.” Like the Kaepernick matter, there is a police incident report. Unlike the Kaepernick matter, this one looks like it might linger awhile. There is video in this case, which makes a simple Twitter denial problematic.
Pile that atop the previous Smith issues, a substance rehab stay and an earlier issue involving possession of assault rifles, along with the Chris Culliver hit-and-run-and-threaten-a-witness-fest, and what you get is a franchise that looks like it looks the other way.
The legal issues will meander through the courts as they see fit, so this isn’t about guilt or innocence, per se. It is really about York and his philosophy about citizenship through football. He was too slow to act on the Smith DUI last fall, allowing Jim Harbaugh to play the pass rushing linebacker in an entire game two days after the incident and then having him sent to rehab afterward. As far as we know, nothing has been done by the club regarding Culliver, and the Kaepernick and latest Smith law enforcement encounters are still too fresh to do anything but have Baalke pantomime a no-comment.
But York can damned well speak. His family pays the HR department, so he can talk whenever he wants. And he has some explaining to do to the customer base about the spate of 49ers extralegals.
Oh, he could write a letter to each season ticket holder (or, more realistically, have one written with HR’s supervision that he will sign) and glide through the problems that have blotted the franchise’s reputation. That would look, though, exactly like what it is – a superficial and unconvincing role-playing exercise about how much the 49ers abhor this kind of alleged-osity.
But nobody will buy that. Nobody should buy that. This isn’t a problem that a press release on team letterhead will solve.
No, what Jed York needs to do now is the one thing his father loathed most in his time as the face of the franchise. Jed needs to be the face of the franchise. This should be done before April 21, the team’s first organized football activity, because the longer the delay, the longer the assumption of . . . well, the longer the assumption that Jed York doesn’t much give a damn.
He has to step out front and say just what this team stands for, and more importantly, what it won’t stand for, under his stewardship. He needs to explain how and why this keeps happening to his employees, and what he – not Harbaugh, Baalke nor HR but he – intends to do about it.
We assume he won’t just lose his mind and say, “It’s not our problem. We only need their behavior on 16 to 20 Sundays a year, and after that they’re on their own.” More likely, he will try to craft an explanation that centers on these central themes:
1. No, this isn’t what we expect from our employees.
2. Yes, we as a franchise and I as the man in charge are profoundly embarrassed by this.
3. We will not allow this to continue.
4. Now may I answer your questions until you run out of questions to ask?
Nos. 1 and 2 are no-brainers. No. 3 is dodgier because he can’t honestly guarantee his players’ behaviors, but punish what needs to be punished afterward. And 4 has no chance of happening because he doesn’t want to answer questions for hours on end.
But there are issues a coach cannot (and should not) talk around, and legalities that a general manager isn’t qualified to speak to intelligently. There are simply times when only the owner will do.
–Ray Ratto, CSNBayArea.com
Are the 49ers an NFL team or a halfway house? The episodes in the last few days make me wonder.
Linebacker Aldon Smith was the latest bad story as he reportedly got impatient with the pre-flight routine at LAX on Sunday and told a TSA agent he had a bomb. Omigawd. He did not, of course, but his outburst caused him to be arrested.
Smith seems to have a screw loose somewhere. He’s already been arrested twice previously on DUI charges and is facing three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon stemming from a party at his home where shots were fired and he was stabbed. He’s pleaded not guilty on all charges.
Cornerback Chris Culliver also pleaded not guilty to hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles after he allegedly hit a bicyclist. Culliver also said before the 2013 Super Bowl that he would not want to play with a gay teammate (he later recanted).
Of course, there was also the Colin Kaepernick incident when Kaepernick and two friends — teammate Quinton Patton and Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette — were in a Miami suite with a woman who later found herself in a hospital with no memory of what had happened, although apparently Kaepernick had undressed her at the apartment. Kaepernick immediately took to Twitter to say that reports of what had happened were false and that he takes great pride in who he is and what he does. Hard to know what part of that episode made him proud.
Of the three players, Smith has the biggest problem. He has a team option on his contract for the 2015 season worth $9.75 million that the 49ers must decide to pick up by May 3, which will be a tough call for the 49ers. It’s quite possible that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Smith. His NFL career is in serious jeopardy.
All of this means the Niners will have to adjust their draft plans. For openers, they’ll have to look for a pass rusher because it’s doubtful they’ll have Smith for a substantial part of the season, if at all. They already were looking at cornerbacks because of hits they’ve taken in free agency, and the possibility they might lose Culliver for an extended period makes that more urgent.
And they have to look for a quarterback they could groom.
Despite his obvious athletic ability, Kaepernick does not look like the long-term answer. His off-field behavior is looking more like his on-field, a lot of slap and dash with not much thought about it.
A quarterback for a team which has been in the Super Bowl and one game away from it twice needs to show maturity on and off the field. Instead, Kaepernick has played with a bravado that forces him to try to make impossible plays, throwing three times into triple coverage to end the 49ers’ hopes in Super Bowl XLVII and then challenging Richard Sherman in the NFC Championship this year on a play which resulted in a season-ending interception.
And lest you excuse him because of youth, Kaepernick was 26 last season. Joe Montana was 25 when he won his first Super Bowl. Can you imagine Montana or Steve Young being mentioned in a police report?
–Glenn Dickey, San Francisco Examiner