Jed York sees to it that the family pays his football team’s human resources department a princely sum to say this several times a year:
“We are disappointed to learn of the incident today involving (Miscellaneous 49er). As this is a pending legal matter and we are still gathering the pertinent facts, we will have no further comment.”
Typically the quote is attributed to general manager Trent Baalke, but trust us. As soon as he gets the phone call that “Miscellaneous" has gotten crossways with the cops, he knows what HR will tell him to say, and it’s that. It’s always that.
He was quoted that way Sunday after linebacker Aldon Smith’s arrest at Los Angeles International Airport on a charge making a false report of a bomb at a TSA security gate.
Baalke has had to pretend to be the author of that sentence fairly frequently the past year or so, and frankly, we have all wearied of Baalke pretending to invoke the franchise’s Fifth Amendment rights. It is time – past time, honestly – for York to explain just what his franchise does and does not stand for.
We claim this not because we need to see his cherubic mush trot out Good Old Answer No. 1 – “We are disappointed to hear blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah.” It’s because the 49ers are getting The Reputation, and unlike the Raiders of the ‘70s, The Reputation isn’t nearly as charming.
Like Colin Kaepernick’s brush with infamy earlier this week, the Smith matter remains “alleged.” Like the Kaepernick matter, there is a police incident report. Unlike the Kaepernick matter, this one looks like it might linger awhile. There is video in this case, which makes a simple Twitter denial problematic.
Pile that atop the previous Smith issues, a substance rehab stay and an earlier issue involving possession of assault rifles, along with the Chris Culliver hit-and-run-and-threaten-a-witness-fest, and what you get is a franchise that looks like it looks the other way.
[RELATED: Smith released after posting bail]
The legal issues will meander through the courts as they see fit, so this isn’t about guilt or innocence, per se. It is really about York and his philosophy about citizenship through football. He was too slow to act on the Smith DUI last fall, allowing Jim Harbaugh to play the pass rushing linebacker in an entire game two days after the incident and then having him sent to rehab afterward. As far as we know, nothing has been done by the club regarding Culliver, and the Kaepernick and latest Smith law enforcement encounters are still too fresh to do anything but have Baalke pantomime a no-comment.
But York can damned well speak. His family pays the HR department, so he can talk whenever he wants. And he has some explaining to do to the customer base about the spate of 49ers extralegals.
Oh, he could write a letter to each season ticket holder (or, more realistically, have one written with HR’s supervision that he will sign) and glide through the problems that have blotted the franchise’s reputation. That would look, though, exactly like what it is – a superficial and unconvincing role-playing exercise about how much the 49ers abhor this kind of alleged-osity.
But nobody will buy that. Nobody should buy that. This isn’t a problem that a press release on team letterhead will solve.
No, what Jed York needs to do now is the one thing his father loathed most in his time as the face of the franchise. Jed needs to be the face of the franchise. This should be done before April 21, the team’s first organized football activity, because the longer the delay, the longer the assumption of . . . well, the longer the assumption that Jed York doesn’t much give a damn.
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.
We assume he won’t just lose his mind and say, “It’s not our problem. We only need their behavior on 16 to 20 Sundays a year, and after that they’re on their own.” More likely, he will try to craft an explanation that centers on these central themes:
1. No, this isn’t what we expect from our employees.
2. Yes, we as a franchise and I as the man in charge are profoundly embarrassed by this.
3. We will not allow this to continue.
4. Now may I answer your questions until you run out of questions to ask?
Nos. 1 and 2 are no-brainers. No. 3 is dodgier because he can’t honestly guarantee his players’ behaviors, but punish what needs to be punished afterward. And 4 has no chance of happening because he doesn’t want to answer questions for hours on end.
But there are issues a coach cannot (and should not) talk around, and legalities that a general manager isn’t qualified to speak to intelligently. There are simply times when only the owner will do.
This is one of those times, and the longer Jed York lets HR do Baalke’s talking for him, the worse it will look. And for owners, unlike football people, what things look like matter a great deal.
So Jed York has to speak, openly and in front of more than just one favorite national reporter. It has to be out in the open, or it will look the one thing it isn’t – a PR thing that will become trivialized on Draft Day. Some of his players have put him and his franchise's reputation in an awkward position and he cannot ask anyone else to wriggle out of that position on his behalf. This is why he matters. He should matter now.