As the 49ers embark on their first game without linebacker Aldon Smith, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence due to substance abuse rehab, one question that keeps coming up is whether the team could have and should have benched Smith on Sunday against the Colts.
The team believes that it had no ability to take punitive action against Smith, under the labor deal. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, however, the NFLPA would not have objected to a benching of Smith, as long as he received his paycheck for the week.
Technically, teams can’t suspend players with pay. Prior to 2006, that was a permissible tactic. After the Terrell Owens case (which came after the Keyshawn Johnson case), the union inserted language into the CBA preventing teams from sending players home with pay.
But teams still have discretion when it comes to decisions made in the best interests of the team and the player. In this specific case, if the 49ers had decided that Smith shouldn’t play two days after an arrest for suspicion of DUI, the NFLPA would have respected that.
Every week, seven players on the 53-man roster are paid to not play. They’re on the team, they’re paid, but they don’t suit up for the game. In Smith’s case, having him not play due to the Friday arrest would have been viewed as being as legitimate as having him not play due to a Friday injury.
The 49ers didn’t consult with the union on that point, we’re told. Instead, it seemed that the 49ers relied, as a knee-jerk reaction, on the presumption that great players always play.
In the team’s defense, the timing wasn’t conducive to making a deliberate and well-reasoned decision. The issue arose on a Friday, the hay was in the barn for the contest against the Colts (with Smith firmly in the game plan), and great players always play.
The quick exit Smith made from the team after Sunday’s loss shows that major life decisions were made by Smith in a tight time frame, regarding both the admission that he has a problem and his willingness to spend roughly a month in an in-patient facility to beat it. As he made these decisions, he also had to be ready to play a pro football game — and then he had to play it.
With the benefit of hindsight, we suspect that the 49ers would have handled the situation differently. Though the right thing ultimately was done, a man in need of in-patient treatment of a chemical dependence issue shouldn’t have been playing football on Sunday.
While there’s no playbook for situations like this, Smith’s situation could provide a useful precedent if/when similar circumstances arise in the future.