When Ray McDonald was arrested on domestic violence charges on Sunday morning, it was the tenth arrest of a San Francisco 49er player since Jim Harbaugh took over the team in Jan. 7, 2011.
According to the invaluable NFL Arrests Database, compiled by U-T San Diego, the 49ers are in a tie for second for most arrests and citations “more serious than speeding tickets” since that date—not precisely the list the team was aiming to top.
|Most Arrests Since 1/7/2011|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||10|
|San Francisco 49ers||10|
|U-T San Diego|
SFGate.com’s Ann Killion claimed the 49ers lead the league in arrests, which requires you to take a very specific and arbitrary cut-off point, but the point she raises about the pattern of behavior deserves serious consideration—and she’s far from alone. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News has similarly questioned the organization’s standard for behavior.
Do the 49ers have a pervasive culture that allows players to get away with off-field troubles without fear of consequences? If so, what has the organization done, and what can it do, to change that culture? These are very difficult questions to answer, but it’s some soul-searching the organization itself has to do in the wake of this offseason, which has truly been an annus horribilis for the franchise.
While all arrests are bad, they’re not all made equal. Let’s look at the ten arrests since Jim Harbaugh's tenure began and see what we can learn from them. It’s important that we don’t group in other off-field incidents in this count. Rather, we will limit the list to instances where there has actually been police action taken against the players.
It’s tempting to include Colin Kaepernick’s Miami incident when discussing this horrible offseason, but it’s important to note that no evidence of any wrongdoing was found in that case, no charges were filed, and Kaepernick was never brought in for questioning by the police. When a player is actually arrested, there’s more substantial evidence to link them to something, even if charges may later be dropped or altered. We’re just trying to look at actual incidents of wrongdoing, not rumors and innuendo.
With that caveat in mind, here are the ten arrests, which divide fairly neatly into several categories.
The 49ers have had four DUIs since 2011. One, lineman Al Netter, is no longer with the team. Another was Demarcus Dobbs, who was suspended one game by the NFL for the incident. Before that, the 49ers also had voluntarily deactivated Dobbs for one game in the wake of the arrest, which seems like a prudent precaution.
The other two DUIs both involve Aldon Smith, who really deserves his whole section. Smith alone accounts for four of San Francisco’s 10 arrests, which is the second most in the NFL over that time period. Only Kenny Britt, who was arrested five times while playing for Tennessee Titans and now plays for the St. Louis Rams, had more.
Smith’s first DUI in 2012 was later reduced to reckless driving, and thus he did not face any sanctions from either the 49ers or the NFL. The more recent one, however, caused the 49ers to send Smith to rehab. While they should have done so immediately—rather than allow him to play against Indianapolis days after his arrest—this was absolutely the right move.
When you have a person who is repeatedly making poor decisions with an addictive substance like alcohol, sending him to get help is the best course of action. The 49ers could have said they would let the league come to its decision while they continued to worry about football, but they instead felt that it was more important for Smith to get help. Remember, the 49ers were 1-2 at the time last season, and people were worrying the season might fall apart—from a football perspective, the best thing would have been to keep Smith on the field. Instead, they sent him to get help.
It remains to be seen whether or not the stint in rehab actually will help Smith get his life back on track, but that’s not something that can be easily judged after a year or two—it needs to be a constant pattern of behavior from here on out. While it would have been great if the NFL would have incentivized teams to get their players help by taking that time missed into account when handing down suspensions, losing Smith for 14 games total is worth it if it helps him get his life back on track.
There is no excuse for anyone to drive drunk, but there’s even less excuse for NFL players. The NFLPA has partnerships with companies like Uber to provide a “safe ride” program for all players. On the back of every player’s union card, there is a phone number to call, where they can either have a driver stay with them as they party or come pick them up within an hour. It’s confidential, as well, so there’s no chance of reprisal from the team. There is no excuse for an NFL player to not take advantage of this service.
The other two Aldon Smith arrests, while troublesome as part of the overall pattern of behavior, are less significant in and of themselves. The much ballyhooed gun charges which formed the basis of the nine-game suspension are relatively minor and wouldn’t be an issue if Smith was an Arizona Cardinal instead of a San Francisco 49er—he purchased the guns legally in Arizona, not realizing the laws in California were stricter. While he absolutely should have known the laws before purchasing the guns, and there’s no excuse for him not to, there’s a reason the charges were reduced to misdemeanors.
The other arrest was for a purported bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport, which resulted in no charges being filed, likely was much ado about nothing. Again, it’s not behavior you’d want to see out of your All-Pro linebacker, but it’s far less troublesome than the repeated DUI charges.
Moving quickly past Daniel Kilgore, who had his charge of public intoxication dropped, we reach this most recent year. Chris Culliver’s situation is something that’s going to come back to bite him: Culliver hit a bicyclist with his vehicle, and then allegedly threatened a victim with brass knuckles.
According to Niners Nation, Culliver reportedly turned himself in, but that’s a situation that’s still very much developing. The 49ers response so far has been to promote Culliver to the starting cornerback position. This one’s just beginning to work its way through the legal system, and it is Culliver’s first offense, but so far the 49ers have not had any response to the case.
That brings us to Ray McDonald. This is not McDonald’s first arrest during Harbaugh’s control of the team; McDonald was arrested on an outstanding warrant in 2012, which in term stemmed from a 2010 DUI. That groups him in with all the drunk-driving offenses from earlier.
But domestic violence? This one seemed to come out of left field; McDonald has never been involved in an incident remotely close to this. When he was released from jail, McDonald called it a “crazy situation," and that the “truth will come out." We’ll find out more details come Sept. 15, when McDonald is set to appear in court, but if the allegations are true, this is the worst incident in Harbaugh’s tenure.
It’s hard not to rush to judgment, but there are simply too many facts we don’t know at this point. It's important to remember that McDonald is only accused of domestic violence at this point; the legal system is far from finished going through even the initial steps of the investigation.
The NFL’s rate of domestic violence is proportionally higher than the rate of any other crimes, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris. Up until last week, the NFL had no policy to deal with domestic violence, resulting in the outcry that happened with Ray Rice’s two-game suspension. The new policy, less than a week old, would call for a six-game suspension for McDonald, assuming the case is what it looks like on its face.
It’s important for the 49ers to get out ahead of any potential NFL suspension. While you don’t want to overreact in case it turns out that this is, in fact a “crazy situation” of some type, it’s equally important that they don’t underplay it like the Baltimore Ravens did. The Ravens memorably had Ray Rice and his wife publicly apologize, while having the head coach come out and say he was “proud” of Rice for how he was handling the incident.
The 49ers need to gather all the information they can before Sunday’s season opener against the Dallas Cowboys. Unless there are some serious “crazy circumstances” that would absolve McDonald of these allegations, the best thing they can do is deactivate him for the game, and start either Tony Jerod-Eddie or Tank Carradine in his place. They made the mistake of having Aldon Smith active for the first game after his DUI arrest; they need to learn from that and move forward.
Jim Harbaugh rather infamously said that he wanted his team to be “above reproach." While he was talking about PEDs rather than off-field incidents, those words have come back to haunt him. The 49ers aren’t above reproach. It is possible to avoid these off-field incidents with proper leadership; the Houston Texans haven’t had an arrest since 2009, according to the U-T San Diego database.
Do the 49ers have an issue with their team culture? I hesitate to paint the entire organization with such a brush; this isn’t a situation like the infamous Minnesota Vikings boat-party scandal from 2005. It’s a series of individual incidents. The 49ers have gambled on players with checkered pasts. Some, like Aldon Smith, have come back to haunt the team, while others, like NaVorro Bowman, have passed with flying colors. This second-chance policy seems to go along with their treatment of their active players; both DeMarcus Dobbs and Daniel Kilgore got new contract deals after their arrests.
The 49ers have several issues, however, that they need to address. They have an Aldon Smith problem, which they’ve taken steps to deal with by having Smith go to rehab. That’s the model they should look to when trying to help players turn their lives around.
If it turns out, for example, that McDonald’s domestic violence situation stems from alcohol, sending him to rehab as well would be a positive move by the team—obviously, we have no idea what the specific details are, but that’s a possible scenario.
More pressingly, the 49ers do have an alcohol problem. Four DUIs in three years, plus a public intoxication charge, plus an outstanding warrant based on a previous alcohol offense, is simply unacceptable. The 49ers have more alcohol-related arrests in the past three years than 17 teams have arrests, period.
While each individual player arrested might be an isolated incident, there have been enough of them to exhibit a pattern. This is something that has to change—whether that’s setting up a team-sponsored program to help chaperone some of their more exuberant players, or increased education, or heavy fines and penalties for violations...something has to be done.
Finally, you have this Ray McDonald situation. People are criticizing the 49ers for not having done anything about it yet, but it’s less than a week old, and the charges are still only allegations. The 49ers organization, from owner Jed York on down, need to handle this properly.
It’s not McDonald’s first offense, and if true, it would be the most serious of any of the offenses the 49ers have committed in Harbaugh’s tenure. Once the facts come out, the 49ers need to take swift and significant action, rather than passing the buck to the commissioner.
The 49ers are once again in the spotlight when it comes to their players’ conduct. They need to handle this one with appropriate severity and degree. The ball is in their court at this point, and they need to do something to change the stigma which is beginning to settle around the franchise.