The countdown that should interest us is 163, as in the number of days until Super Bowl 50. The seventh of February is the Bay Area’s opportunity to flaunt its mystique to Planet Earth and the 49ers’ opportunity to show off their tech-toy stadium, right down to the presumed Taylor Swift halftime show. CEO Jed York already has added a special touch to the field he’s trying to keep from shredding, painting the midfield 50 in anniversary gold.
But the number that occupies us right now is 13. It’s not unlucky as much as it’s sinister, the number of times a 49ers player has been arrested or charged since 2012. And as long as that number keeps growing, seemingly a couple of times every month, the crime story will overwhelm everything this franchise and region are trying to accomplish in the Super Bowl lead-up. The last narrative the NFL needs, as a league disgraced by a long-term epidemic of violent crime, is a championship game played in a facility where the host team leads in arrests.
That’s how Levi’s Stadium is perceived right now — a jailhouse — the $1.3-billion symbol of a $12-billion-a-year industry that can’t control its players.
By now, the 49ers were supposed to be in sync with the NFL and the mayor’s office in developing excitement and momentum. The parties, celebrities and media will be in San Francisco, with the teams and practices in Santa Clara and San Jose. The Bay may never again host another Super Bowl in its chilly and rainy winter climate, or at least not for a long time, so the idea is to enjoy the entirety of the spectacle. Yet how is that possible when you’re expecting a Google alert each morning about another 49er player in trouble?
When linebacker Ahmad Brooks was charged Wednesday with misdemeanor sexual battery for an alleged assault — part of a Dec. 15 incident at the home of former 49er Ray McDonald, who was indicted by a Santa Clara County grand jury on one count of raping an intoxicated person — it reminded us that nothing has changed. York can try to make a scapegoat of Jim Harbaugh and declare this his franchise will “win with class,” but that’s a phony smokescreen. Fact is, Harbaugh was fired last December, and 49ers players have continued to hit the police blotter this entire calendar year. York and general manager Trent Baalke were here throughout the Harbaugh era and signed off on every one of his problematic players — and the bad decisions accompanying them, such as allowing Aldon Smith and McDonald to play in games after arrests. Neither learned, and both are long gone, yet not before York and Baalke gave Smith another chance this year, which he blew with his fifth arrest in four years on suspicion of hit-and-run, driving under the influence and vandalism.
Everyone got sucked into the Harbaugh way of winning, York and Baalke included. Until they realize they are more culpable for the crime wave than their deposed coach, the trail of trouble likely will continue. Brooks shouldn’t have owned a roster spot this summer given his history of legal issues, including a 2013 episode in which he was cited for punching teammate Lamar Divens in the face and hitting him over the head with a beer bottle. A year ago, he famously argued with Jim Tomsula, then the defensive line coach, during a game and was issued a one-game suspension for missing a team meeting. Did York and Baalke not see the red flags? More likely, because the 49ers are absurdly thin at linebacker after the well-chronicled procession of offseason retirements, the bosses were more lenient with Smith and Brooks out of desperation. So what have they really learned when they’re STILL prioritizing football needs over character-related common sense?
Thursday in suburban Denver, after sending Brooks home while the NFL investigates his case and determines his fate, Baalke spoke to reporters and trotted out the same company line: The organization is committed to a “player engagement program” and has tripled resources for the initiative.
“Trust me. We’re doing what we can,” Baalke said. “That’s the frustration.”
But are the 49ers really doing all they can when Smith, a breathtaking talent whom Baalke wanted to reward handsomely for the long term, obviously was fighting the same demons in front of his bosses’ noses? “Any time players are involved in off-the field incidents, we take those matters seriously. We’ve worked hard, very hard, over the past 12 months to really try to get ahead of this stuff,” Baalke said. “It’s our mission to get ahead of these things before they happen.” The mission isn’t working.
Tomsula, as the head coach, is vitally important in any social progress via his daily dealings with the players. As opposed to Harbaugh, who burned them out with his collegiate slogans and hard-driving demands, Tomsula is trying his unique brand of man-love while embracing his bosses’ philosophical methods. “I mean, there’s a plan in place. We’ve got our systems through player engagement,” he said as his team finished two days of joint practices with the Broncos. “We’ve got those things that we’re obviously not going to talk publicly about. But I feel great about the organization and the processes that I’ve been sitting in [on] and the way we’re approaching it as an organization. Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s moving along. I feel real good about it.”
“It’s obviously something that’s very important in my mind,” Tomsula went on. “I know it’s very important in Trent’s mind and obviously in the ownership’s. It’s very comforting to see what were pushing with resources and manpower. I hope we don’t have to test it much.”
Don’t hold your breath, Jimmy T.
All of which is a plague upon the franchise’s rich, proud tradition, which also is supposed to be celebrated as Super Bowl 50 approaches. Somewhere, Joe Montana must be disgusted. Jerry Rice did an interview Thursday with SI.com and stated the obvious: Where’s the leadership?
“I think what’s happening with the Niners, they just don’t have the veterans around like before,” said the Hall of Famer. “When I came in, we had leaders like Joe Montana and Roger Craig, so many guys to show how to be a professional. Now, the teams are so young, they don’t have anybody to look up to. These players are making bad decisions.
“They have a new head coach. They don’t need this type of news. Super Bowl 50 will be in San Francisco, and I would love for the 49ers to be part of that. The negativity, they don’t need this. Hopefully, they can clean it up.”
In 13 days, Super Bowl festivities kick off with a concert in Justin Herman Plaza. NFL executives will be in town, and NBC cameras will zoom in as part of the network’s opening Thursday night game coverage. The countdown begins then for San Francisco, and while we debate whether the 49ers have more wins or arrests this season, we’ll also wonder if Jed York’s football team ultimately will sabotage Jed York’s Super Bowl.Jed YorkJim HarbaughLevi's StadiumRay McDonaldSan Francisco 49ersSuper Bowl 50