Yesterday, the San Francisco 49ers announced that they were releasing Ray McDonald immediately. Citing his pattern of behavior, Trent Baalke confirmed in a media session, after consulting with Jed York and Jim Harbaugh, that he had let McDonald and his agent know that he would no longer be employed by the 49ers.
It's easy, perhaps, to wonder at the team's consistency. A few months earlier, the 49ers appealed to due process as a reason for why they were going to keep McDonald on the team and on the field during the course of an investigation of domestic violence. Though he was never charged, McDonald and the 49ers nonetheless took a good degree of heat during the whole ordeal. Now, however, the 49ers have released McDonald almost immediately upon learning about the allegations. Are they being hypocritical?
It's entirely possible. For one thing, the 49ers are 7-7 and eliminated from playoff contention. It's easier to take the moral high ground in a billion dollar industry when your team no longer needs to win (and when, in fact, the draft might incentivize losing - not that I think that that's what the team is doing necessarily). And at least one anonymous 49ers player is wondering if this is the case.
But, it may be that the 49ers are developing new standards about how to approach situations like this in the future: they did take a remarkable amount of media pressure over this McDonald earlier in the season, especially considering the fact that it was in conjunction with a larger debate about how the NFL handles domestic and sexual violence generally. Baalke had a few interesting points yesterday.
First, he noted that the 49ers had no conversation with the league office about this decision. This is not surprising at all; I honestly don't doubt in the slightest that the league office had no interest in getting near this. They are in full-on panic / PR mode, and anything that can cause them trouble is diseased. As far as it pertains to the NFL, McDonald is irrelevant until they have to deal with him. Cynical? Perhaps, but totally justified based upon the NFL's recent report card. Until the league office needs to deal with this, the 49ers are on their own.
This means that what happened is squarely on the shoulders of the 49ers. They are in charge now, and they are calling the shots. So, they have now set a precedent that people will remember in the future. When a player has a "pattern of behavior" problem in the future in respect to domestic or sexual violence, you can be sure that people will being citing McDonald as example number one of what the 49ers should do. Baalke had this to say: "we certainly believe in due process and we've demonstrated that over time. But when it becomes a pattern of poor decision-making, which it has in this case, it becomes a time when it leaves you with no other decision to be made but the one we made today."
So, will this be applied in the future? Or, even now? What about Aldon Smith, for example? Now, a case can be made that there is a difference between the nature of McDonald's alleged misconduct and Aldon's crimes; most notably, Smith has yet to hurt anybody besides himself, a tree, and a knife that probably snapped in half once it got to his muscles. Also the hair-bleaching industry. I wasn't a huge fan of the bleached tips, Aldon.
But, McDonald has been accused of assaulting another person. Yes, there is a difference, but is that a difference that the 49ers are going to adhere to? Note that Baalke did not mention the nature of McDonald's alleged crimes, he simply cited his "poor decision-making." Now, we can understand this a couple of ways. First, it might be the way that Baalke has to talk about the circumstances surrounding the McDonald case since he hasn't been found guilty. Secondly, however, this might be a way for Baalke to leave other options on the table should the 49ers feel the need to cut another player for a non-violent crime. Third, the team might be developing internal standards that will aid in this decision process in the future, and Baalke has no desire to discuss them with the media.
As it stands right now, though, the 49ers seems to work on a case-by-case basis. As Baalke said, "Ray and I had multiple conversations since the latest allegations and put together some criteria that we felt he needed to do in order to stay in good standing." It appears as if the 49ers were attempting to work with McDonald on an individual basis. In fact, Baalke sort of confirmed this (but still is vague enough to be working around confirmation) when he said: "We're not going to rubber stamp this decision going forward in saying that every time a situation like this occurs, this is exactly how we're going to act. But we will be on record as saying that the expectations here are no different than they've been in the past. We expect a lot from our players. Hold them accountable for their actions. When it becomes a pattern of poor decision making, this can and will be the result."
There's a good amount of media-speak in there, and only time will tell what is true and what isn't. But, until then, this new case provides some degree of precedent going forward.