It was June, and the Seattle Seahawks were seeing a handful of their players suspended over performance-enhancing drug use. Jim Harbaugh definitely noticed and couldn't help but puff his chest and wag his finger over the Seahawks' PED problems.
"Play by the rules," Harbaugh told the media. "You want to be above reproach, especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say, 'They're winning because they’re cheating.' That’s always going to be a knee-jerk reaction in my experience, since I was a little kid.
"We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. If you don’t, if you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler. And Bo Schembechler is about next to the word of God. It’s not the word of God, but it’s close."
We want to be above reproach in everything.
One wonders what Schembechler would think of Harbaugh's 49ers now. No, the 49ers aren't cheating with PEDs (that we know of); they're doing much worse. They are morphing into one of the most troubled franchises in the sport.
This is for certain: The league office is watching the 49ers closely. No one should be stunned if commissioner Roger Goodell makes a significant statement with a harsh punishment of Aldon Smith, the latest 49er to appear on a police blotter. And the 49ers' police blotter runneth over.
Smith seems like a first-rate putz, and if he did indeed say he was in possession of a bomb while in an airport, well, he is also a raging idiot. Smith is innocent until proven guilty, but his track record indicates felony putzmanship. He is officially beyond the benefit of the doubt. Smith seems morally ineffectual and habitually enabled, leading to a bevy of arrests.
This is the crux of the problem in San Francisco—a coach and regime that talks a good game about being above reproach but continues to do the opposite. The 49ers are not emblematic of Schembechler; they are like many teams that have come before them. They are slaves to talent and winning. That is it. That is all.
Smith is a good example. He has 42 regular-season sacks since 2011. He is a stunning talent, but hopefully he has an unlimited data plan on his phone, because the number of texts between Smith and his defense lawyers must be infinite. Smith was arrested in September on suspicion of drunk driving several days before a critical game against Indianapolis. Smith played in the game and then entered rehab afterward. That'll teach him.
He is also currently facing three felony counts of possessing illegal assault rifles. This stemming from a party where Smith was stabbed and two people at the party were shot by alleged gang members.
In 2012, he was arrested for drunk driving. That charge was reduced to reckless driving. In all, Smith has been arrested four times since January of 2012.
What 49ers fans and others will say is that Smith deserves sympathy because he might be an alcoholic. That may be true, but I've covered players like Smith before, and the bigger problem is enabling and judgment.
Not sure what alcohol has to do with alleged illegal possession of an Armalite AR10-T .308 caliber rifle, a Bushmaster ACR rifle and a Bushmaster Carbon-15 .223 caliber rifle. What does an NFL player need with all that firepower, particularly when the NFL constantly discourages its players from having guns? Excellent question. He's a pass-rusher, not doing a perimeter check in Kabul.
The 49ers still aren't the most arrested team in the NFL. That distinction belongs to the Minnesota Vikings. Since 2000, the 49ers have had approximately 16 arrests. Yet few teams have had more police drama over the past one to two years than San Francisco. At least nine 49ers have been the subject of police investigations since 2012, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
We'll hold off judgment on the incident involving quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a second 49ers player and a Seahawks player being investigated for what Miami police are calling a suspicious incident. I won't judge the incident itself, no, but I will say I don't see Russell Wilson's name in a police report at the center of a possible suspicious incident. Or Tom Brady's. Or Andrew Luck's. Or Drew Brees'. Or Eli Manning's. Or Aaron Rodgers'. But I digress.
Have the 49ers responded appropriately to offseason incidents?
The list of San Francisco players in recent trouble isn't short, and the allegations aren't insignificant. One of the more recent offenders was defensive back Chris Culliver, who pled not guilty last week to hit-and-run charges and possession of brass knuckles. (Brass knuckles? This isn't the 1930s, Chris. Instead of brass knuckles, take a Muay Thai class.)
The 49ers' response has been extremely tepid. If Harbaugh is talking these above-reproach-isms privately to the players, it isn't working. Publicly, the team has said little about its off-field troubles. It may care, but it's hard to tell if it does.
There are class people in this organization. I know some of them well. I know the arrests bother them deeply.
What I don't know is if Harbaugh truly cares or if he just talks about it.
We want to be above reproach in everything.
Time for the 49ers to prove it.