Friday afternoon, news broke that San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was arrested that morning and booked on five separate charges related to a hit and run incident in San Jose. As soon as the news broke, most 49ers fans were quckly calling for his release.
Honestly, I was disappointed to hear about Culliver's recent drama. However, looking at it introspectively, my initial thoughts were not toward the victim of the hit and run or the by-stander who Culliver allegedly threatened with brass knuckles. Frankly, I was banking on Culliver's return this season. And, the 49ers already had a need for at least one more reliable corner. When this news broke, my concern surrounded how it could adversely affect the 49ers, not Culliver as a person or the victims of the crime.
I was not surprised to see people immediately call for Culliver to be cut, but people need to ask themselves why. Sure, nobody wants to see one of the players on our team get arrested, but Cully is not the first NFL player to get arrested, nor will he be the last. However, the immediate reactions of most NFL fans is sort of comical considering the good amount of players within the NFL who we know have committed some pretty horrible things.
While the league has made an effort to enforce a personal conduct policy, since when does the NFL really care about a player's criminal record, so long as the man can play football?
Granted, the league is concerned with its public image, but if the player's contribution outweighs whatever knuckle-headed behavior, teams will jump through hoops to keep him. The message is loud and clear within the NFL, i.e., if the performance outweighs the conduct, you can do just about anything. We also have an NFL team owner in the mix, arrested for driving under the influence. And, what is priority number one for the NFL? A ban on goalpost dunks.
I have seen the numbers that compare the crime rates of NFL players to the general population. Personally, I believe crime within the NFL is complicated. For example, most of the statistics do not take into account that conviction rates for athletes are astonishingly low as compared to arrest statistics. There is the perception players aren't being held accountable (as compared to the general population). There could be several reasons for this, but most of us recognize there are players in the NFL who commit crimes. We cannot turn on the television and watch a game without seeing someone on the field who's been arrested.
There are frequent discussions among 49ers fans about the Seattle Seahawks. At times, there often appears to be a sense of moral superiority and statements that our team is better when it comes to off the field behavior. Most of these assertions usually derive from the discussions of PEDs. Sometimes, it comes off as we're better than those teams from a moral standpoint, but instances such as this one involving Culliver show no team is really above another when it comes to morality.
On the other hand, I have seen fans mock Jim Harbaugh's words, "You want to be above reproach" whenever a negative situation of any sort pops up. However, if you know Harbaugh, he does not speak broadly. Harbaugh was talking specifically about PEDs and cheating. Many folks seem to ignore the context.
Nonetheless, 49ers fans apply the "above reproach" broadly. For example, even though Larry Grant was no longer with the team when he faced an NFL suspension, some will point out he did not return to the 49ers after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Grant's circumstance was convenient to 49ers fans looking for proof our team was somehow morally superior. To many fans, there was a pseudo precedent in place. Perhaps some actually believed Grant not returning served as the template of how players would be treated if they violated the substance abuse or personal conduct policies. Unfortunately, there is no such precedent.
The team has signed players with past substance abuse and criminal violations. Consider the Ahmad Brooks beer bottle debacle. It was an outrageous set of circumstances after it was first reported. Later, we found out more details. We all seemed to agree it was wrong, but now we've all pretty much forgotten about it. Seahawks fans love to give us grief about Aldon Smith and his DUI and weapons possession charges, but we rationalize it because he's gotten help.
I believe the 49ers try to have a clean image and want players with strong character. In a perfect world none of our players would commit a crime, but it is unrealistic to believe our team is not susceptible to poor behavior. And, when we act like the players cannot do anything wrong, it is somewhat delusional. After all, athletes are human beings. Crime hits all walks of life, even the rich and athletically gifted. The whole idea of "above reproach" from a criminal standpoint is a misnomer, because it is a mathematical certainty the team will eventually get a player who gets in trouble.
If any team sets a precedent to automatically cut a player because of his bad behavior off the field, it creates artificial limits. A percentage of NFL players are bound to violate it. And, when the 49ers are working out of that pool of X amount of professional football players, no team is immune.
If the 49ers were to immediately release Culliver following his arrest, the team would box themselves in when it comes to other players' future transgressions, which is very much a statistical likelihood. In a similar vein, 49ers fans may want to think twice about taking the moral high ground when criticizing an off-field issue of a rival, because at some point, the shoe will be on the other foot.