It sure sounds as if Ray McDonald is going to be in uniform for Sunday's 49ers game. That's what I read between the official sentences spoken by general manager Trent Baalke on Tuesday.
Although I do not believe Baalke is saying anything that the team's lawyers have not vetted in some fashion, at least he stood up and answered some pointed questions about the McDonald situation.
Baalke stuck with the script. The 49ers hate domestic violence. The 49ers are letting the legal process play out before they do anything.
"We're still in the fact-finding mode, trying to get as much information as we can," Baalke said. "We'll have more knowledge later today and certainly more knowledge the next day and moving forward. So, nothing has been determined at this point."
Does any of this come across as quasi-wishy-washy to you as it does to me?
No question, you want to be cautious before indicting anyone, anywhere. That includes McDonald, who was arrested for alleged domestic violence over the weekend.
But the 49ers are not operating in a vacuum. This is part of an ongoing storyline. Last season, after linebacker Aldon Smith was arrested on a DUI charge, he was permitted to play in a game two days later. He subsequently entered rehab for five weeks. But if the 49ers believed this would send a positive and helpful message to other players regarding their behavior . . . well, the subsequent arrests of Chris Culliver and McDonald show otherwise.
The 49ers could send a much better message by at least hitting the pause button for McDonald while this gets sorted out. At the very least, according to reports, McDonald was hosting a loud and raucous birthday party last Saturday night that must have veered out of control at some point. He is 30 years old now, which is old enough not to throw the same sorts of parties that 22-year-old people throw. A sit-down for a game or two might drive home that message.
In the back-and-forth with Baalke, I also noted the case of his team's own running back, rookie Carlos Hyde. A year ago when Hyde was at Ohio State, he was involved in a nightclub incident with a woman who made assault charges.
As the case was being investigated, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer put Hyde on an indefinite suspension until things could be sorted out. When the woman later dropped the charges, Meyer converted Hyde's punishment to a three-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
So why couldn't the 49ers do the same thing? Issue a team suspension during the investigation?
"I think once again, I keep going back to due process," Baalke said, "and let's make sure that we have as much information as we can before we make any decision. I don't know that particular case and . . . I do know the case, obviously. I don't know the time-frame in which that was handled."
Despite his hedging, Baalke absolutely had to know about the particular case. When you're thinking about drafting a particular player and notice he didn't play three games, you ask why. You get details. Hyde seemingly took the suspension to heart and has avoided trouble since.
Now, the big difference is, this is the NFL and not college football. And big, big money is involved. It tends to make you wonder if the big money is also involved in the decision being made about McDonald.
It has been reported, first by USA Today and then others, that the 49ers recently reworked McDonald's contract to provide salary cap relief. He was scheduled to earn $3.5 million in base salary in the 2014 season. Under his new deal, McDonald received a $2.645 million bonus up front and his salary was reduced to $855,000. This helped reduce the team's overall cap figure.
But here's what that also means: If the 49ers decide to cut McDonald later in the season should they discover he is guilty of the charges, they're already out the $2.645 million and can't get it back. Likewise, if McDonald is subsequently suspended for six weeks without pay by the NFL, the 49ers are going to save just $300,000 or so, rather than the $1.2 million they would have saved under the old deal.
I am not saying that any of this definitely played a part in the 49ers deciding not to take hasty action against McDonald but . . . all right, I am sort of saying that.
For the 49ers as a business enterprise, you can certainly understand the team making such a choice. In fact, I would have a lot of respect for Baalke or owner Jed York if they stood up and said about McDonald: "Look, we've paid this guy a lot of dough and we want to get back some of our investment to help us win football games before the league figures out if it wants to punish him."
Of course, that would sound rather unfeeling and focused on the bottom line result. Well, guess what? The NFL is often unfeeling and focused on the bottom line result. Right now, the 49ers are trying to walk a very fragile line. They want to convince people that they are uber-sensitive to perceptions about being soft on players who are arrested . . . while at the same time wanting to retain every possible advantage when it comes to winning games. Which is what McDonald gives them.
I have no doubt that the York family, from what I know of them, is frustrated and horrified that 49ers players keep putting their team in a bad light. Personally, I would suspend McDonald while the investigation of his alleged actions is ongoing. But I didn't just write him out a check for $2.645 million. And I think it is nave to believe none of that plays a part in how this is all playing out.
It is professional football, after all. And as with all professions, the axiom about what drives many decisions does hold true: Follow the money.