Disbelief of Suspension

Ed. note: Please enjoy this Friday Sunday Feature, which is not at all stale despite being two days late.

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There’s a new version of Frankenstein about to hit movie theaters. The film even features its own take on the classic line of dialogue, “It’s alive!”

This is interesting timing, as that very same refrain–or something like it–has been gaining currency in the East Bay this season; the monster in that case being the Oakland Raiders. After years of playing corpse-like football, the current Raiders have shown enough twitching movement to give their fans hope.

That hope, however, took a hit this week with Aldon Smith’s year-long suspension. Smith’s absence makes the Raiders immediate future highly questionable. More relevant to the larger world of the NFL–and indeed sports in general–is a bigger question: Should Smith have been playing this season at all?

The DFR: FootballAs you may know, this is not Smith’s first foray into the world of (literal) crime and punishment. The extremely skilled linebacker has shown an equal talent for malfeasance. As far back as 2012, Smith proved to be unable to drive a car without bad things happening. His arrest in September 2013 for suspicion of DWI ultimately led to a stint in rehab and Smith’s first lengthy stint away from the field. It also led to the first serious debate about whether or not Smith should be allowed to play in that week’s 49ers game–and, in a larger sense, whether or not he should be allowed in the NFL at all.

It’s not a moral or even a legal argument; it’s a practical matter: if a player proves he’s unreliable, you simply can’t rely on him.

The parameters of that debate generally fell along legalistic lines: did Smith have the right to continue at his job until he was convicted of something? Or were the 49ers obligated to remove him from the team regardless of any court action, simply for the sake of presumed violations of social conduct codes?

From a civil liberties standpoint, the former argument should carry the day. One would hope that we still live in a society where we are “innocent until proven guilty” and entitled to “due process”; being stripped of your right to do your job, being subject to punishment for something of which, perhaps, you are not guilty, severely undermines that bedrock principle of our legal system.

In Smith’s case, that argument also gained support from those whose primary concern was the performance of the team. Clearly, Smith was a key component to San Francisco’s defense, and their chances of winning were bound to suffer without him on the field. For the rabid fans, “innocent until proven guilty” coupled with “let him play”–and the need for a pass rush–held as much legal force as any case Clarence Darrow ever made before the bench.

Of course, the opposing reasoning–that the team had an obligation to suspend or even release Smith on moral grounds–had little chance of moving the owners of an NFL team, maybe the most mercenary and amoral variety of business in the world. (Steroids, concussions, stadium blackmail, the league’s “non-profit” tax dodge; hell, NFL teams don’t even want to pay their cheerleaders.) They’re never likely to respond to a “won’t someone think of the children” outcry.

Nor did such cries have much force within a society that routinely indulges in all manner of hypocrisies and double standards. Athletes get away with murder–figuratively, at least–all the time; why should folks suddenly get religion in Aldon Smith’s case? Especially considering that, in most of his alleged crimes, he was the only individual to get hurt.

As noted above, Smith ultimately played after that 2013 arrest, though he entered rehab soon thereafter. Apparently, the program didn’t take: Smith had another arrest for a driving incident this past August, the last straw that pushed the 49ers to finally say goodbye. Thus, it is the Raiders who get to rue Smith’s mercurial personality, not his original employers across the Bay.

The strangeness in all this is that the argument and counterargument raised by Smith’s history are both largely irrelevant. The 49ers got it wrong–by letting Smith play in 2013–behind the “due process” rationale, then got it right this summer, largely by invoking the moral case. And in both situations, they missed the simplest, most relevant reasoning of all: a player with a record like Smith’s should go, because he’s too unreliable to keep around.

If there’s any one thing that a coaching staff prizes above all, it’s reliability. You want to send your player out on the field knowing that he or she is going to do what needs to be done in order to win. That means availability; that means reliability; that means consistency. Now consider Aldon Smith (or any such “troubled” athlete): Does his behavior indicate a responsible dedication to being available to his team? Can you rely on someone like Aldon Smith? Is there any consistency to Smith, other than his seemingly consistent ability to find the wrong side of the law?

The impulse to keep letting a player like Smith out onto the field comes from the lure of the undeniable talent. Teams are seduced by what they believe they will miss out on if they tell such a player to not play for them. But, as the NFL just demonstrated to the Raiders, you’re likely to wind up playing without him anyway, thanks to the consequences of his behavior.

A team like the 49ers, who were at the time a deep, talented defensive team, could afford to indulge Smith, because they could get the job done without him if things went awry. (Not so much anymore, but that’s about more than just sending Smith away.) Of course, that also means they could have told him to get lost, without losing too much in the way of on the field performance. They should have acted earlier than they did.

For the Raiders, a team trying to rebuild, bringing Smith onto the roster in the first place was a bad choice. Even if you built something with a guy like Smith in the lineup, your risk of seeing all that collapse once he’s gone–and with Smith, disappearance seems inevitable–is nearly total. Make a troubled athlete a cornerstone of your rebuild and one DWI later you’re back at square one.

It’s not a moral or even a legal argument; it’s a practical matter: if a player proves he’s unreliable, you simply can’t rely on him. And going forward with that kind of uncertainty on your roster is what gets coaches fired.

The Raiders rolled those dice with Smith, and perhaps he helped put the spark back into their recently lifeless body. Now they get to find out, without their pass-rushing linebacker, if the franchise’s reanimation will keep them moving forward–or if they will quickly revert to being just a dead thing.


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