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Niners Should Just Win, Baby

Apr 17, 2014 at 6:28 AM12

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

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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Paul A.
    Jeff, I have given much thought to this issue. I am about to enter my 7th decade and have been able to reflect on so much in this life. My parents understood that as humans we have the capability to be more than just unthinking animals. It takes effort to be a moral person and I have tried to surround myself with those of like mind. No one is perfect, far from it, but to just throw up my hands and say the hell with it when it pertains to the team that I have invested so much in is just wrong. I have never subscribed to "The ends justify the means" and I am unwilling to do so now.
    Apr 23, 2014 at 11:36 AM
    Response: I respect that, Paul. We'll soon see if the Niners agree with you.
  • Ron michaud
    Not one of my favorite reads from you. Have you gotten writer's cramp lately? Yes everything you detail is accurate. The problem is as your piece articulates.... WHO CARES! Most NFL fanatics realize the league is made up of legalized thugs who spread mayhem on the field each Sunday. The violence is brutal... That's why we adore it. I'm sure you could of detailed how current and ex-players get free passes for their insubordinations all the time. Again... WHO CARES!! I just wish your future writings include how OUR NINER THUGS.... can get back to the Super Bowl. I still love yah.
    Apr 19, 2014 at 6:53 AM
  • Craig
    I enjoyed the article. I would love to see a clean-cut moral 49er team win Super Bowls, but I think honestly I still care more about watching them win. Every locker room in sports has players with issues. I'd prefer Aldon Smith over a Riley Cooper any day...but that's just a matter of opinion. People say athletes are role models but honestly, no one wants to be Charles Haley off the field...just on it. Lawrence Phillips was a jerk but what I disliked most about him was when he missed a block that ended Steve Young's career. Sports are about winning. When a player is talented and classy we love him, but there's always going to be questionable characters. I can't list 53 of my friends without running into some who have DUI's or other police records. Tim Tebow seems like an awesome person, but it would be a lie if I was to say I want him under center for the Niners.
    Apr 18, 2014 at 5:53 PM
  • Monsterniner
    Well Jeff, let me tell you that Aldon won't help us to win games because he is gonna miss tons of games due to his actions and the worst of all is that he isn't getting better with time which means that it's just a matter of time for him to kill someone or kill himself so Baalke has to look for somebody in the draft and guys like Skuta and Lemonier will have to step up.
    Apr 18, 2014 at 2:30 AM
    Response: You might be right, Monster. And as I said, if Smith can't help us, get rid of him. But get rid of him only because he can't help us, not because of some misplaced sense of moral virtue.
  • Kari
    I was so happy to see an article from you finally, Jeff. I have been in Kaplan withdrawal. But I have to say that this article follows your last article, where you really brought me down, and now you are saying that it's okay to just let NFL players, whom impressionable children idolize, do whatever they want, as long as they win on the field. I couldn't disagree more. I want to win the SB as bad as the next die-hard 9er fan, but not when it means just turning a blind eye and therefore condoning bad/illegal behavior. There are too many uber-talented players out there to take their place. Nevertheless, I will still await with bated breath your next article. :)
    Apr 17, 2014 at 12:08 PM
    Response: Thanks, Kari. And I sympathize with your position. But I'd just reiterate that we've been "condoning" such behavior for years (Phillips), and we're still doing it today (Cox). It's certainly unfortunate, but it's just the cost of the business of winning.
  • Maui Dave
    Studies have shown that the crime rate for NFL players is about half that of the general population. The problem is the media doesn't report Joe Sixpack's indiscretions, whereas media members troll the crime reports looking for athletes in trouble to report on and sell news. Imagine if everyone who's gotten behind the wheel after a few drinks or had a toke once in a while made it to the six o'clock news. We want our players to be role models but they are just people who make mistakes and hopefully grow from the experience. I only care if they play smart on Sunday. What they do in private is their business.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 9:50 AM
    Response: According to the study I saw, the arrest rates for NFL players are generally higher than those for "the general population," though they're generally lower than those for adult males generally. You might be relying on the latter point, and, as the study noted, it might well be the more descriptive one generally. But I went with "general population" here, only because it's the general population, and not just adult males, who make up the Niners' customer base.
  • Steve
    While it's nice to have an upstanding team, it's about winning. While I watch all 49ers football, win or lose, it's the winning that makes the pain of losing all worthwhile. It's the winning that makes you glide into the office exuberant on Monday mornings. As you said, they're not doctors, lawyers, and teachers here, they're athletes. My biggest concern amid all this drama is not the light they're putting themselves in (although unfavorable), it's the distraction and difficulty it creates for a productive 2014 campaign. York, Harbaugh, and Baalke need to snuff the fire, right the ship, and restore media focus back on the Lombardi quest, instead of fiasco.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 9:20 AM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Great article Jeff, I agree, just win baby. Thought I would point out that this applies to Harbaugh as well. I am fed up with how some fans and critics are complaining about his abrasive personality and other issues. Are you kidding me? Look at his record, this is not a popularity contest, we just want to win games. By the way, I still have not gotten over the Haley trade, but then I live in Dallas.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 8:43 AM
  • RishikeshA
    Winning is the universal cure. These players live on the edge, one hit and goodbye career. Can a 6'6" 260-pound man be controlled? Most players can stay under control off the field, some can't. Losing Charles Haley cost us Super Bowls, I hope history doesn't repeat itself.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 8:34 AM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, What a sad place they have created. I need more than "just win baby."
    Apr 17, 2014 at 8:27 AM
    Response: But Paul, I think we've ALWAYS been, more or less, "just win, baby." I just think it's time to admit it.
  • Richard
    Winning at any cost quickly becomes "winning at any cost" and all virtue and standards are abandoned. No society can stand with such a rule. Life becomes moment-to-moment survival and the commons exist no more. Where boundaries should stand is always going to be a debate. That they should stand is a matter of choice that is the premise of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 8:25 AM
  • JWB
    Couldn't agree more. Now college sports is different. But this is PRO sports. These are well-paid gladiators. Niners are doing everything they can to keep these guys in line. The niners cannot be held responsible for what these gladiators do in their spare time.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 8:23 AM

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