San Francisco 49ers Must Take Care to Practice What They Preach

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 27, 2013

The man on the phone is John York. He is co-chairman of the San Francisco 49ers. York has dedicated most of his recent life to the betterment of others. It has worked wonderfully. It has transformed lives. Yet because of the actions of one of the organization's players, York's job has gotten more difficult.

More on that in a moment. 

This week, the 49ers were one of three organizations to win the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Steve Patterson Award for Excellence in Sports Philanthropy. This is a very big deal.

It's not pumping a few bucks into a charity group, taking photo ops and hopping back into the limo. York and members of the 49ers actually get their hands dirty. They invest time, sweat and, yes, lots of cash. Through grants and other programs, York says the organization has donated $20 million over the past 20 years.

While that amount is a pittance to an extremely wealthy franchise—the 49ers spend $1 million a year on jockstraps and beer—it is still real money. It has a great impact on the less fortunate.

York was once co-owner of the 49ers. As co-chairman, he's mostly the team's point man on league issues and community outreach. The stories are fairly remarkable. One of the 49ers' charities works with the San Francisco bar, which in turn assists immigrants new to the United States.

One high school student, a sophomore from Samoa, went to his guidance counselor and said that he wanted to go to the University of California, Berkeley, to become an engineer. The counselor said that would never happen because he didn't speak English. Lawyers from the bar association and a 49ers player worked with the kid. Two years later, he got into the school.

"Those are the types of things we try to do," York said.

And that's the good.

Now here comes the bad.

Smith was arrested Friday and played Sunday.
Smith was arrested Friday and played Sunday.Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Aldon Smith arrest for suspicion of drunk driving and marijuana possession, and the message the 49ers sent with the way they handled it, overshadow the team's efforts to have a positive impact on the community.

The organization is asking the community to see its charitable efforts as genuine, while simultaneously allowing one of its players to take the field like nothing happened, days after he plowed down streets and into trees while drunk (allegedly).

"Aldon has realized that he has a problem," said York, "and he is taking it upon himself to fix that problem. We support him doing it."

York and his organization's efforts are real and tangible, but situations like Smith's create a sincerity deficit. The organization is telling other people's kids to do the right thing while failing to punish one of its own kids for not doing so.

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said it himself, while mocking the troubles of the Seattle Seahawks this offseason. In comments that were released by the team, Harbaugh told players, "We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules."

Above reproach in everything.

Harbaugh discovered that is easier said than done.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told his players they have to be "above reproach."
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told his players they have to be "above reproach."Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Smith's actions and Harbaugh's hypocrisy have nothing to do with York, who is no longer in control of the daily operations. But those things damage the brand in the community, a community where he spends a great deal of time.

It's possible that some people will stop donating time or money to the 49ers' causes because of the way the team allowed Smith to play after he could have nearly killed someone. Maybe someone says, "Why are the 49ers telling me to get my life together? Look at them."

Meanwhile, York pushes forward, doing good work. Again, using his own hands.

There's the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, which helps at-risk middle school kids stay in school. York actually tutors kids there.

There's another 49ers charity that fights child abuse and domestic violence. York is heavily involved with that one.

He takes part in a program that works with judges, to convince them that young first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes should participate in programs designed to help them, instead of inserting the kids into the juvenile system.

Once, York was speaking to a group of kids who were studying the Bill of Rights. One young girl asked if he was alive when it was written. York laughed and said no. The girl asked how he knew about it. He responded, "That's what I learned, and I like to learn."

York spoke about this season, and I asked about the 49ers' rough start. "It feels like a rough stretch," he said, "but there have been rougher stretches."

Yes, York pushes forward, doing good acts. He can only hope the example rubs off on the more visible members of the organization he loves.