From now until Feb. 2, many Americans will spend every Monday night, Thursday night, and all day Sunday watching football. Beyond the scope of those die-hard fans like myself, many more will always catch the one game a week that their team is playing. The National Football League (NFL) is a huge part of our culture. Between sportscasts, fantasy leagues, and tailgates people spend a lot of time and money celebrating what I think to be a great entertainment institution. These players become much more than workers in a popular company. They are our heroes and the role models of our children. We wear their jerseys and cheer for them passionately. But they are citizens just like us, not above the letter of the law. Or are they?
When I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of the experts on Sunday NFL countdown, I was overwhelmed with the breaking news of San Francisco 49er’s linebacker Aldon Smith’s arrest. He was arrested the previous Friday of a DUI. Reports say that he blew a .15, which is almost two times the legal limit and crashed his car into a tree. So, what? People get arrested all the time, and beyond that, NFL players get arrested all the time. The main problem with this case was 49er’s coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to start Smith despite his pending criminal action.
Harbaugh was quoted saying back in June that “he wanted to be beyond reproach,” and his action in similar cases before this one had supported that statement. Harbaugh suspended running back Brandon Jacobs in 2012 for inappropriate tweets. One may argue that the case isn’t the same as the Smith case. Well, how about last year when the 49ers second string defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs was not allowed to play or even come with the team to a game after being arrested for a DUI? That case sounds remarkably familiar to that of Smith, with one major exception: second string.
Smith is the 49ers leading pass rusher. He was 6th in the league last year in sacks and strikes fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks everywhere. He was an instrumental piece in the 49ers 2013 super bowl run. So basically, Harbaugh’s stance is that a player will be punished for his actions, unless we really need him Sunday.
What kind of message does that send to young kids getting into athletics, or people in general? That if you are a good player, or irreplaceable, the rules don’t apply to you. That exceptions will be made for some and not for others. This is the wrong message for sure. Even more than its message to the fans, what does it do for Smith? It tells him he can get drunk and drive his car without fear of losing his job because he is a good player. What if he hadn’t hit a tree, what if he had hit another person? Would that be okay too? It isn’t like Smith, who signed a four year, $14 million contract in 2011, can’t afford to call a cab.
Harbaugh’s decision was wrong. It sends the wrong message to fans and players alike that rules don’t apply to all professional linebackers. I am not the only one who feels this way. NFL Sunday countdown analyst and legendary football coach Mike Ditka spoke out against this poor decision on Sunday saying “You get what you tolerate. What message are you sending to young people in sports? Go ahead, do anything. Be a bum, act like a clown, I’m going to play you on Sunday. I disagree with it totally.”
Mike Ditka certainly wouldn’t tolerate this behavior, and he to this day holds the respect of football fans everywhere (even us NFC North rival Green Bay fans.) Maybe Jim Harbaugh doesn’t deserve this respect. He is surely feeling the backlash of his decision, if for no other reason than the fact that the 49ers lost anyway.