This is the right thing. Hopefully.
Hopefully now Aldon Smith will get the help he apparently needs. Hopefully he will realize there is more to life than football. Hopefully he will figure out why he has been arrested twice in the past 19 months on suspicion of driving under the influence, including last Friday morning on his way to work.
On. His. Way. To. Work. Smith had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit around 7 a.m. last Friday. He popped a curb, flipped his truck and struck a tree. No one was killed. Smith was OK. This time.
Hours after San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh opted to start Smith against Indianapolis on Sunday -- a decision made even more questionable by team chief executive officer Jed York's explanation of it afterward -- Smith announced he was leaving the team to take care of what he described as "a problem."
"Wow," said one NFL head coach. "That's a good thing, if he takes it right."
That is a big if. Everyone on the inside has known Smith has had a problem. The Niners knew it. The league office knew it. The NFL Players Association knew it. Because he already was in the substance abuse program following a 2012 arrest for DUI, Smith had been subjected to counseling for alcohol addiction, according to someone with knowledge of the situation. It apparently didn't work.
"He needs serious help, he just does," that person said. "So he needs a lot of support. He needs a lot of help. As with any human that has those types of issues, their willingness sometimes is not the primary question. He needs it. So it's tough. This is a tough one."
It is tough on a multitude of levels, but the seriousness of the situation calls into greater question why Smith was on the field at all on Sunday. San Francisco could have suspended Smith for the game, although a suspension would have been fought by the NFLPA and likely overturned. The Niners could have deactivated Smith for the game, with no consequences other than losing their best pass-rusher. Harbaugh chose not to. Harbaugh could have benched Smith for a series or a quarter or a half, but he chose not to do that, either.
Harbaugh let Smith play because, as York explained, "sitting somebody down and paying them to sit down when they're going to seek treatment in the future, that didn't seem like an appropriate punishment."
So, by York's reasoning, playing Smith was about not wasting a game check on a player who needed to be saved from himself.
"I know it might not sound reasonable," York said. "But for Aldon to be able to face the media, face his teammates and take full responsibility for what he's doing, we felt that was the best situation for Aldon himself and for the team and ultimately (for) the community at large."
No, sitting Smith seemed like the humane thing to do, given the circumstances. The player is hurting. He is hurting himself, hurting his teammates, hurting his team and hurting his family. He needs help. But from an organizational standpoint, the priority for the Niners was this one game. It was a big game -- what game isn't? -- so San Francisco started a player who had made 37 sacks in 34 games and could hopefully help derail Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck. It didn't work. The Niners lost 27-7. Sometimes you get what you earn.
What San Francisco must now do is rally behind Smith. Give him space. Give him time. Let him go to treatment for however long he needs. Take money out of the equation. Don't dock Smith game checks. Show him support by continuing to pay him. Don't make Smith have to choose between his overall health and his wallet, because the wallet always wins. Every time. Undefeated.
"These are tough calls," the head coach told me. "You have to know the person, his habits and try to predict the future. I don't know where they have been with him on the other situations. These are easier when you have all the facts. It seems like he should get professional help. To me, a union for the better of the kid should step in and protect the player from himself, or at least work with the team and league to manage the situation."
That has happened. The NFLPA has been involved, although the situation remains fluid. There are doctors and lawyers involved, as well as Smith's representatives, the union, the league and the team.
Now that the Colts game is over, the focus must be on doing everything to help Smith conquer his demons, whatever they are, so that he can maximize his potential. He is an engaging person. He is a gifted football player. He will turn 24 years old on Wednesday. His life is ahead of him.
But Smith can't prosper and grow and contribute to society or to the 49ers if next time he doesn't just flip his truck. What if he careens into another car? What if he kills someone else?
Smith must get help, and the Niners must give him space. This situation is bigger than football. This is about someone's life.
"Football's just a microcosm of the world," the coach said. "Same people problems. I hope he gets the help if he needs it." Finally, it sounds like Smith and the Niners are doing the right thing. Hopefully.