I wrote this over the past weekend in Washington, D.C., where I was attending and speaking at meetings of the Knight Commission on College Athletics. I was interested in how the decision of the San Francisco Forty Niners to play Ray McDonald in the September 7 game against the Dallas Cowboys was perceived by Washington fans. McDonald, you will recall, was arrested on felony domestic abuse charges a week prior to the Dallas game.
Of course, the Ray Rice domestic violence matter has dominated the news, and nobody is suggesting that the McDonald incident is as disturbing as the Rice assault.
First, some disclosure is in order. I grew up in Seattle at a time when the nearest NFL franchise was the 49ers. The televised games from Kezar Stadium were a high point for me and my buddies, and the Niners were our favorite team.
I now have lived in San Francisco for 30 years and the Niners have remained my favorite NFL team. I experienced the glory days of Montana, Rice, Lott and all the other great players that were assembled in the days when it was possible to significantly outspend your competition if you were so inclined. Will there ever be another time when one Hall of Fame quarterback is backed up by another Hall of Fame quarterback? Doubtful.
So, I am a long-time fan and as a result suffer from the bias that fandom bestows on us. However, I have found it increasingly hard to maintain my tunnel vision support for the Niners as the arrest numbers of the players pile up. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see how fans from other areas view the Niners.
To conduct my highly un-scientific survey I went to a local Dunkin’ Donuts, where I thought I’d find a cross section of Washington professional football fans. Turns out I was right. First, we got the issue of the nickname of the Washington team out of the way. Majority response: “Change the damn name. It makes us all look bad.” Next most-common response: “I don’t care, I just want to see a decent product on the field for a change.” And finally, “Snyder (the Washington team’s owner) is a terrible owner but a brilliant businessman. He’ll change it when the money is right.”
We then discussed whether the Niners did the “right thing” by playing McDonald days after his arrest on domestic violence charges following an incident allegedly involving McDonald and his fiancée. Of course, the incident in question took place just a few days after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced significantly tougher penalties for domestic violence involving NFL players.
Interestingly, to the people with whom I spoke, the face of the San Francisco Forty Niners is not Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore or any other player. Rather, it is Coach Jim Harbaugh. Many of the folks with whom I spoke were aware of Harbaugh’s earlier statement that he has a no-tolerance policy toward domestic violence. A common response among Washingtonians was along the lines of, “Typical coach. His no tolerance policy clearly doesn’t apply to players he needs.” Several people noted that they would expect this approach (allow an impact player to participate as long as possible) from every NFL head coach.
One law student noted that she was pleased that an NFL coach, “has taken the time to embrace the Constitution.” I sensed some sarcasm in her remarks, made in reference to Harbaugh’s statement that his no-tolerance policy would not take effect because of his due process concerns. She wondered, as did others, whether the US Constitution, designed to protect citizens from actions of the government, necessarily should serve as an obstacle to a private employer seeking to discipline its employee for poor conduct. Several folks noted that it appears that the Niners simply didn’t want to discipline a key defensive player, at least not while one key defensive player is already serving a suspension for bad behavior and another key defensive player is injured.
I asked the group, “But what if McDonald didn’t do anything wrong?” The typical response was, “Then shame on the police for imagining bruises on her body, and shame on her for making up a story about her future husband. Why doesn’t McDonald just come out and say he didn’t touch her, or at least say that he touched her, but it was some type of self defense?”
I wonder if the cynicism of this small group reflects a broader national attitude. These folks in Washington were not particularly critical of the Niners in relation to other NFL teams. Rather, they felt that Coach Harbaugh’s remarks, and his decision to play McDonald, were typical of what every NFL team and its head coach would decide to do in the same situation. That is, nothing. The NFL, they noted, is a huge business and nothing is more important than winning.
As for me, I found it a little harder to be a Niners fan when Coach Harbaugh noted that his no-tolerance position would take a back seat to the Constitution. I wish he never would have made the no-tolerance proclamation in the first place, and I wish he had not played McDonald against Dallas.
So let me ask you other Niners fans: What do you think the Niners should have done regarding Ray McDonald and the game against the Dallas Cowboys?
I look forward to your comments.