By Jim Litke
The only funny thing about the now-infamous 49ers’ training
video is that for all the embarrassing situations it covered, it
left out the most embarrassing one of all:
How one of the NFL’s signature franchises became a stumbling,
bumbling, comically mismanaged shell of its former self.
By Jim Litke
The only funny thing about the now-infamous 49ers’ training video is that for all the embarrassing situations it covered, it left out the most embarrassing one of all:
How one of the NFL’s signature franchises became a stumbling, bumbling, comically mismanaged shell of its former self.
Teams coming off a 2-14 season are understandably reluctant to put out commemorative videos. So for the moment, this soft-porn classic is all that hard-core fans will have to remember the team by. Viewed that way, it’s a fitting tribute to an organization that in recent years made a raft of bad decisions followed by even worse ones. And nothing illustrates that better than the story of how a video designed to help players handle the media wound up in the hands of the media instead.
The in-house production apparently was the brainstorm of Kirk Reynolds, the team’s likable public relations director, and shown to the players during training camp last August as part of a diversity workshop. Proving he’s a better safety than a movie reviewer, the 49ers’ Tony Parish described the content as “the same type of sarcasm and satire” that catapulted comedian Dave Chappelle to fame.
What that conveniently leaves out is that Chappelle is offensive AND funny. Reynold’s video gets it only half right. It’s chock-full with racist, sexist stereotypes and mocks San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as a glad-handing bribe taker. Oddly, the 49ers might be the most enlightened organization in the league on matters of race and sex – and possibly the only one extending domestic partner benefits to employees; plus, they’re going to need Newsom’s support to build the new stadium they so desperately covet.
Owner John York had nothing to do with making the film, but everything to do with fostering the back-stabbing, front-office culture that led to the video winding up in the mail at the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. Since taking the reins in 1998, not long after a family power struggle left his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, in control of the team, York has made a mess of just about every department he’s meddled in.
He marginalized white-haired eminence Bill Walsh, and eventually drove him back to Stanford. He chased off two coaches and just about emptied out the team’s personnel, marketing, scouting and finance departments. In one memorable example of tightfistedness, York ordered cases of bottled water locked up to keep employees from taking them home. In another, he had to be shamed into paying for commemorative belt buckles for the players and staff after the 49ers won the NFC West title in 2002, a tradition that began in San Francisco’s now-forgotten salad days.
But it wasn’t penny-pinching that cost York and the franchise this latest embarrassment. Last fall, he signed ex-general manager Terry Donahue to a four-year extension, but by January decided to eat the contract and fire him. The day before he was let go, Donahue showed a 30-second clip from the video to York. According to the Chronicle, that was Donahue’s attempt to discredit Reynolds, who Donahue believed was part of the effort to get him fired. In March, Donahue mailed a complete copy of the video to York at the owner’s request. Apparently it sat in a drawer until this week, when the team issued a statement saying it was shocked – shocked! – by “how poor conduct can unintentionally make news.”
If so, this is a franchise that desperately needed shocking. The good news is that the process is already in motion. York’s micromanaging, timid leadership and miserly ways caused such a precipitous decline in the 49ers’ fortunes that members of the DeBartolo family instructed him to loosen the purse strings. After consecutive years of being at or near the bottom of the payroll scale, San Francisco is spending money on new coach Mike Nolan, No. 1 pick Alex Smith and competing for free agents.
It’s hardly the innovative, risk-taking, Super Bowl-or-bust approach the 49ers rode to dynastic heights with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, but it’s a start. Besides, they can’t sink much lower.
A purge at the end of the 2003 season saw a handful of stars and front line players traded or released. That, in turn, led to the 2-14 debacle, but it also freed up some cash.
If York us smart, he’ll invest it in something other than making movies. After all, the on-the-field videos the 49ers have been turning out recently had plenty of X-rated action in them, too.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org