The 49ers are facing an immediate decision on Ray McDonald, in a similar way that they faced a decision on Aldon Smith last fall: In the wake of an ugly arrest, do they keep a valuable player active for an upcoming game in a few days, who cares what it looks like?
We know what the 49ers did with Smith: He played in the 49ers' loss to the Colts two days after his DUI arrest (and practiced just hours after getting out of jail) because the 49ers really wanted to win that game (but didn't), then he voluntarily went into rehab.
We know who made the decision for Smith to play: That was GM Trent Baalke.
We know that Jim Harbaugh and his staff then decided to keep Smith on the field for all 72 of the team's defensive snaps that game.
So we know who will make the decision on McDonald for the 49ers' season-opener in Dallas just days after McDonald's arrest on domestic-violence charges: It will be Baalke. He decides team policy and team punishment, if the 49ers do any of it.
Baalke decides what the 49ers' rules are, not Harbaugh.
I presume owner Jed York could decide team policy but to this point he has ceded all control of that to his GM and all evidence is that York will continue to do this.
With that understanding, it's important to note what Harbaugh said and didn't say on KNBR this morning in the team's first response to questions about McDonald and the handling of this issue.
Harbaugh said that there are "two principles at play here" -- the 49ers and Harbaugh personally will not tolerate domestic violence and also they believe in due process.
Practically, what does that mean? Harbaugh didn't say whether McDonald would practice today or be active for Sunday's game, which certainly allows for the possibility (probability?) that McDonald will remain a 49er in good standing as the legal process churns.
But Harbaugh also confirmed that, in his opinion, there is no place on the 49ers for anyone guilty of domestic violence.
So if McDonald is found guilty, it would follow that the 49ers would not want him on the team, period. But he could get exonerated.
What happens while the police, lawyers and courts decide this? Good question.
My quick summation is that Harbaugh obviously has strong feelings about domestic violence but can't be definitive on this specific case because 1) it's not his call, it's Baalke's, and part of this decision involves Baalke wanting to win on Sunday; 2) Harbaugh has his strong beliefs, but he also wants to win Sunday, too.
And that's part of life in the NFL. You get paid to win games. I get that and am not railing against that.
Here's what Harbaugh could've said: Whether McDonald is active or not for Sunday's game is up to Baalke. Because it is.
I'm not saying I believe the 49ers have made the decision to let McDonald practice and play. I don't know what they're going to do. I believe they will release McDonald if he's found guilty.
But I'm also saying that Harbaugh's statement -- and, so far, Baalke's disappearing act on this issue -- has left the door wide open for the 49ers to let McDonald remain a full participant in everything they do.
The 49ers can point to the legal process and say they will follow that, and the legal process means innocent until proven guilty.
I understand that. It's also true.
However... The 49ers aren't deciding whether or not McDonald goes to jail. That's when you get all due process, which is protected by the Constitution and thank God for that.
The 49ers are deciding whether McDonald represents them in uniform on Sunday. That's a different question.
And if you think companies never decide to remove somebody from their midst without total due process... well, look at what happened to the Centerplate CEO who was caught on video cruelly beating his dog in an elevator. He's out.
Nobody credible is saying the 49ers should release McDonald or even suspend him without pay. What I'm saying: Announce that he's not allowed to practice, go to meetings or play Sunday, but that he will be paid for this week, pending further information.
Because the 49ers should not want somebody who possibly is a felony domestic-abuser on the field in their uniform. That's why.
Baalke will decide this -- Harbaugh has control over who gets activated for game day, but Baalke decides all team policy, and keeping McDonald inactive would be a policy decision. As the Smith decision was a policy decision.
Unless the 49ers believe they have exculpatory evidence in this case, McDonald should not practice this week or play Sunday.
Announce that he's inactive. Pay him the game check. Then see about next week when it comes.
Much of this involves teams' player-security departments, which are supposed to keep players out of trouble or, as I believe has happened frequently with the 49ers, extricate players from trouble once it has begun.
Afterwards, that department also is tasked to figure out how to lessen the trouble or, if possible, erase it from the legal books by investigating the evidence.
If the 49ers believe they have evidence that points to McDonald's innocence, they will act one way; if they don't have that evidence, they might act another way.
Remember, the 49ers employ a lot of people who have ties in police departments. Many, many, many of them.
And the 49ers' players-security department is very busy these days.
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