The 49ers have been leaders in activism in the NFL. It begins with the players, but CEO Jed York deserves credit for how he’s handled it. (Courtesy Keith Allison/Flickr)

Jed York grows into a genuine leader of 49ers, NFL

It’s not easy to compliment Jed York in this city. Which makes sense. The 49ers fell from being the next big thing to a last-place team quickly and in embarrassing fashion.

Making matters worse, the young CEO ripped the team from San Francisco. Fans would be more forgiving if their favorites weren’t playing in an easily mocked facility in Silicon Valley. To many, it was an indefensible move.

Several fans have told me that the move and team’s downturn (which happened in concert) led them to give up on the Niners altogether.

I say all that to say this: York is learning from his past mistakes. You can’t point to a bad decision he’s made since he whiffed on firing Trent Baalke before last season.

Yes, the 49ers are 0-6 and well on their way to a third-straight lost season. But let’s rewind to May 2016 before we unpack the on-the-field product.

Months after York pledged $75,000 to the Equality North Carolina Foundation — a group committed to repealing the state’s ridiculous bathroom law that targeted trans people — he showed his ability to be a leader.

Colin Kaepernick sat through the national anthem before a preseason game. It was a watershed moment. Sports and activism had interacted before, but rarely like this. Many people were upset. The league didn’t know how to react.

It was York who affirmed Kaepernick’s first-amendment rights. (Former head coach Chip Kelly also deserves a share of credit here.) That wouldn’t have happened on most pro sports teams.

York backed it up by donating $1 million “to the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve here in the Bay Area.”

Fast-forward a year, York remains at the forefront as a genuinely progressive voice in the NFL. He attended — along with safety Eric Reid — a meeting on Tuesday, when owners and players discussed steps that need to be taken so players can feel like they don’t need to protest anymore. Afterward, he displayed an authentic desire to understand his players and why they feel compelled to protest.

On Thursday, he expanded on his thought process while addressing the reality that many fans don’t want to confront difficult issues while they watch sports.

“I understand where they might not want to talk about political or social issues,” he said. “And I think that’s the conversation that we’re trying to have with everybody — owners, the league, players. [We’re] saying, ‘Alright, there’s a lot of attention around this. Let’s make sure that we make this message much, much clearer. Let’s make sure that people know that you’re not being unpatriotic, you’re not being what some of the negative folks have labeled you to be.’ Let’s get that message clear and let’s figure out how to move this to real progress in our country.”

Reid, who has taken Kap’s lead since he was exiled from the league, has expressed that he feels supported by York. To me, it didn’t seem like lip service from a man trying to keep his job. You won’t see any members of the Dallas Cowboys penning op-eds in the New York Times to clear up any misconceptions about this player-driven movement.

(York isn’t perfect, obviously. And when he said that Kaepernick isn’t being blackballed, many opportunists used that as an entry to try to discredit what the former QB has done. But what do you reasonably expect York to say there?)

Putting aside the fact that he’s leading (among owners) on social issues, the team is on the right track and York has gotten out of his own way. In the past, York has been accused of meddling in football decisions.

He’s empowered a young, promising head coach in Kyle Shanahan to work with a likable general manager who is a master communicator and has made smart complementary hires. John Lynch isn’t necessarily going to be the football mind that brings this team back, but they’re in the building — and that’s a start.

Jed is still in his mid-30s. Writing him off anyone at that age would be a mistake in any line of work. He’s shown that he’s not above learning from his missteps, and as a result, the team is inching back to being on the right track.

And today, the 49ers will celebrate their first Dwight Clark Day.

Clark was diagnosed with ALS in March. In honor of him, the money made from the 50/50 raffle will go the Golden Heart Fund, “which serves current and future 49ers alumni who are in need of financial, medical, psychological or emotional support.” A quarter of the money made from the sale of Clark gear at the stadium will also go the fund.

At halftime, Joe Montana will address the crowd at Levi’s Stadium — a sign that York is embracing his organization’s rich history and making it a part of the path forward.

Doing all of this won’t heal all of the wounds created by vacating Candlestick Park and moving Niners games into the parking lot of an amusement park. But it’s an honorable start.

And I’m not saying the Faithful should forgive York this instant. But it should be a possibility down the road.

When the team is competitive again in 2019 would work.

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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