SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Here at the home of the NFL’s Most Arrested Team, it was just another day at the office Tuesday. There was no official word if 49ers’ defensive lineman Ray McDonald would play in Sunday’s opening game at Dallas.
The hunch here: He will. Trent Baalke, the team’s general manager, said that McDonald was practicing Tuesday. Plus, it is unlikely that any NFL or police investigation — which could lead to a league suspension — will conclude before Sunday’s kickoff. Draw your own conclusion.
Baalke did speak briefly to reporters Tuesday. He said that “domestic violence is unacceptable and certainly won’t be tolerated” by the team. Baalke also reiterated his previous statement that the 49ers “take such matters seriously.”
Fine. My question is, do you?
Yes, you, over there in the 49ers cap.
And you, the couple in 49ers T-shirts who are lining up your game-watch party for Sunday.
Are you taking this seriously?
Because I wonder. I really wonder.
Specifically, I wonder how much of a factor the fan base’s tolerance for the 49ers’ recent spate of trouble has played in the continuation of that trouble.
This topic is the third rail for sports columnists, I realize. Our most fervent readers tend to be a team’s most fervent fans. It is considered customer-unfriendly to tell those same readers that they bear some blame when a player thinks he can commit a loathsome or stupid act — and yet know he will continue to be employed by a team.
I also do not claim that sports columnists are moral superiors to anyone or are innocent of sports-worship dementia. We probably do as much as anybody to inflate the public personas of athletes. Guilty as charged.
Nevertheless, my belief is that NFL teams only coddle their knuckleheads because the fans and the business community often coddle them more. McDonald’s incident marks the 10th arrest for the 49ers since 2012. Yet throughout this stretch of ignominy, what have fans done? They have sold out new Levi’s Stadium for the entire season. Sponsors and corporate partners have signed on to be part of the show. Team merchandise is ubiquitous.
Occasionally, the coddling even involves public officials. Or have you forgotten about Aldon Smith’s buddy-buddy treatment by some in the Santa Clara County sheriff’s department in 2012?
That year, officers were called to Smith’s home in the San Jose foothills when a house party turned chaotic. Smith was stabbed. Two people were shot. In the aftermath, Smith was investigated for possessing illegal assault weapons.
Yet at right about the same time, Smith was invited to a fundraiser staged by the sheriff’s advisory board. At the event, Smith was given a ride in the sheriff’s helicopter and participated in gun target practice at the sheriff’s shooting range. Yes, this really happened. When the story of this bizarre episode leaked out, opponents of Sheriff Laurie Smith (no relation to Aldon) made an issue of it during her re-election campaign. Voters still handed her a fifth term in office.
Meanwhile, Aldon Smith eventually pleaded no contest to the weapons charges and is suspended for the first nine games of this season — after which, I predict, he will return to the field with cheers from the Levi’s crowd.
Which is why I ask: Who is truly doing the enabling here? Is it only the team? Or is it people who continue to follow the team rapturously and act as if nothing really that major has gone wrong?
Let me be clear: This doesn’t mean that fans should heckle offending or convicted players in public. It does mean that when a convicted player appears at an autograph show, people might not want to line up and pay for his signature.
It also doesn’t mean that convicted players should be sent hate mail. It does mean that when a convicted player shows up at a restaurant or nightclub, he should not be given special treatment or swarmed over by fans eager to meet him. Players are used to such treatment. They will notice when they don’t get it.
And it doesn’t mean that fans should stop watching NFL games on television or at the stadium. It does mean that if fans really care about the direction that their team is going in terms of a moral compass, they might consider not patronizing some of the companies who advertise on the broadcasts and send them an email or message, informing them that they will not buy products of companies that support a team employing lawbreakers.
And yes, it doesn’t mean that sports columnists should stop writing about the NFL players who are good people and do good things. It does mean that maybe we should hold those players a little more accountable for tolerating their knucklehead teammates and not doing more to call them out publicly.
It would also be nice if fans backed up those voices by not being more worried about who to pick in their fantasy lineup for Week 1 against Dallas.
I am not holding my breath.