Smith announced he’s leaving the team indefinitely after the 49ers’ 27-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the first step in what could be the hardest struggle he’s ever confronted.
The 49ers faced a lot of heat over the past few days for not suspending Smith after the Friday incident. By letting him suit up against the Colts, many believed the 49ers were undermining their integrity, prioritizing what happens between the lines over sending a stern message that such behavior will not be tolerated.
What is this, an after-school special from the 1980s? The 49ers suspend Smith for one game, he sees the gravity of his alleged off-field transgressions and the teams rides off into the sunset with the Vince Lombardi Trophy?
If this ordeal was really about the 49ers taking a stance against drinking and driving, we should really be asking them to give Breathalyzers to every fan who drives off the stadium parking lot on any given Sunday.
Let’s get serious about this issue because it’s actually a serious issue. Smith doesn’t need tough love; he needs professional help.
Unfortunately, we tend to look at substance abuse through the prism of high morals and personal responsibility. Smith is apparently behaving immaturely and someone needs to punish him so he gets himself under control.
This oversimplifies a complicated issue, though, and fails to acknowledge that the relationship between Smith’s body and whatever substances he might be struggling with could be different than that of an average American.
Smith was allegedly drunk at 7 a.m. in the middle of the week, less than 72 hours before a game. Not exactly recreational drinking behavior, even for a 23-year-old. It sounds like the behavior of someone who needs professional assistance.
The 49ers could have suspended him for a game, maybe two, and then just said, hey, don’t let this happen again. Figure it out.
A suspension might have looked good from a public relations vantage point, but would it be enough to stop him from picking up the next drink and jumping behind the wheel?
A lot of professional athletes receive suspensions for substance abuse-related infractions and still wind up collapsing under the weight of their addictions. See J.R. Rider.
Smith agreed to get help. He could beat whatever he might be grappling with and be a truly unstoppable force with a healthy body and a sober mind.
But this isn’t a “one-day fix,” as 49ers CEO Jed York acknowledged, and it’s up to Smith to fight for himself. The 49ers are supporting him. They’re helping him walk through the door, but he’s the only person who can do the heavy lifting in the end.
The willingness will need to come from him.
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.