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Around the turn of the century, when the Internet was still taking its first timid steps, a website was launched. With so many sites already having cornered the market on fake Rolexes and natural male-enhancement, a site was launched with a promise to be different. It promised to explore its subject with greater depth than any other site on the web. It promised to pull back the curtain and tell the whole story, which the subject's followers needed to know.
The subject was the San Francisco 49ers.
And the site was 49erhaters.com.
Oh, I know, 49erswebzone was starting up at just about the same time, with just about the same promise (which, of course, it has kept, to the max). But the haters' site was interesting too. The work of a shadowy cabal known only as the Niner-Haters Society, or NHS, the site was based on a simple belief. As they wrote in the aftermath of the scandal that led to the departure of beloved owner Eddie DeBartolo, a scandal that marked him as a convicted felon:
"For the past two decades, Eddie and the 49ers have been lauded as a model franchise, adored by the media, and even had the gall to incorporate 'class' into their official company slogan. While 49er-haters easily saw through this propaganda, millions of people were duped into believing the fake image of '49er class', and that was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the NHS and this website. Sure, everyone now sees the true stench of Eddie and the 49ers, and it will taint everything the franchise does in the future; however, the taint must be properly translated back to the past as well. Everyone needs to remember that the 49ers have never been about class or family, but have always been about about [sic] money, deceit and corruption, and anything they supposedly earned while under Eddie's reign deserves an asterisk next to it as the product of sleaze."
As you can see, the NHS's central point wasn't that the Niners, off the field, were sleazier than your average NFL franchise. (The NHS might've believed that, and they probably did, but again that wasn't their central point.) Their central point was something else. That the Niners claimed a virtuous title they didn't deserve. That the Niners' words didn't match their deeds. That the Niners, in short, were hypocrites.
If you saw the NHS's strangely exhaustive profiles—the site is defunct, but the DeBartolo piece remains available—you had to confess. They had a point.
And though the NHS is long disbanded, they still do.
Nearly two decades after that ill-fated "Winning with Class" campaign, the Niners are once again being hoist with their own petard. Three years ago, in extolling their first draft, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh decided not to rest on their choices' mere athletic proficiencies. They again waded into the dangerous waters of personal virtue. Baalke noted that they demanded "gold-star" guys, "clean guys off the field." Harbaugh, as he does, went further, slighting any other team—that is, all of them—without the Niners' exacting specifications. "We, by far, the 49ers, got the most gold helmets of anybody in the draft," he said, "and it wasn't even close."
With two of the top three picks in that draft having been arrested within the last few weeks—and with the third having been guilty of poor situational judgment, though, thank heavens, it seems nothing worse—the Niners once again find themselves scrambling. Once again, they've failed to meet their self-imposed standards of personal virtue. And predictably, the natives are restless. One local scribe placed the onus squarely on Jed York, DeBartolo's successor: "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."
What he intends to do about it? What he intends to do about the propensities of young, strong, and aggressive men, who are paid obscenely and who generally aren't particularly bright, to have more than their share of scrapes with the law?
What could he possibly do about that?
It's time for a little honesty here. York's job is to please his customers, and he'll please his customers only by winning. At least as compared to the general population, football players get into trouble. So if York cuts every player who gets into trouble, he'll just end up with a losing team. A law-abiding, losing team, and a bunch of pissed-off customers.
And despite the Niners' lofty rhetoric, they've always known this. DeBartolo did his thing, as the NHS noted. Bill Walsh signed Lawrence Phillips, who'd dragged a woman down stairs by her hair. And even Baalke and Harbaugh, after lauding their gold-star draft, signed (and re-signed) Perrish Cox, who'd impregnated a woman while she was knocked out.
Indeed, only once did the Niners actually adhere to their impossible standards, and they paid for it dearly. In the late '80s, Charles Haley was a menace, on the field but also off. The Niners traded him to Dallas, a team that wanted only to win, without regard for the abstract cost. And win they did, taking two titles that should've been ours. If that's the price for our precious virtue, I hope we never pay it again.
I just want the Niners to win. Granted, I want them to win fairly—I don't want PEDs, salary-cap violations, or videotapes of opponents' walkthroughs. But beyond that, I don't care how decent they are. I don't care whether they'd make good doctors, lawyers, or priests. I just want the Niners to win.
Every franchise feels this way, including the Niners. (Not every team is unwilling to cheat, but you get the idea.) The difference, though, is that the Niners—seemingly, only the Niners—paint themselves as above reproach. And that's what's really the issue here. It's not that they've got players in trouble, like every other franchise does. It's once again their hypocrisy, and that's the thing that should bother York.
So enough of this. Enough of the holier-than-thou. If a player gets in trouble, be disappointed. But then ask the only question that matters. It's not what do we stand for or why is this happening. It's simply whether, despite the trouble, this player still can help us win. If not, cut him. But if so, keep him.
Forget about the title of virtue. Focus, instead, on the title that counts.