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Matthew Barrows: 49ers are clear on hazing - it isn't part of the program

Published: Friday, Nov. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 - 12:55 pm

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers don't haze rookies, young players, anyone.

"We try to help our young guys as much as we can because we're going to need them throughout the year," nose tackle Glenn Dorsey said. "So we want them to make a smooth transition into the locker room, into the NFL."

"We don't have those types of issues," safety Donte Whitner said on SiriusXM NFL radio, discussing the Miami Dolphins' hazing controversy that has rocked the NFL this week. "Because I can honestly say this is one of the closest football teams, this is one of the closest groups of men I've ever been around. We play and we have fun, but we know not to cross certain boundaries. We know not to cross respect boundaries and sexuality boundaries and disrespect people as individuals."

To hear the players describe it, the 49ers' locker room is a magical place of tolerance and harmony. And when it comes to rookies, it's not much of an exaggeration.

As one of the 49ers' leaders, Whitner took the team's most prominent rookie, Eric Reid, under his wing the moment he stepped through the door, to help prepare Reid for a season as the starter at free safety.

In the spring of 2011, rookies Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick were embraced immediately by the group of veterans – led by defensive leaders Justin Smith and Ray McDonald – who were working out at San Jose State during the lockout.

Rookie hazing? Then-starting quarterback Alex Smith not only paid for one of the 49ers' draft picks, receiver Ronald Johnson, to fly from Michigan to San Jose that summer so he could take part in player-run practices, he lent Johnson his wife's Mercedes so he could get around town.

That's the kind of environment coach Jim Harbaugh wants.

Beginning with former coach Bill Walsh, the sort of rookie hazing commonplace on other teams was banned by the 49ers. There are mild rituals – carrying a veteran's helmet off the practice field, rookie skits to celebrate the end of training camp – that have come and gone since Walsh. But he set the tone by emphasizing that everyone was equal.

That ideal has been amplified under Harbaugh, a former player and son of a coach who sees the locker room and practice field as the ultimate sanctuary for players. Harbaugh heaps praise on players, defends players from the media (see: Jenkins, A.J.) and never has said anything even vaguely negative about one of his guys.

A 49ers practice is not a Marine Corps' proving ground where instructors bark at and break down newbies. The yelling, swearing and browbeating of young players that was abundant during previous regimes largely has been absent for three years. In Harbaughland, everything coming from the organization is positive and anything that's not is fanatically guarded and kept in-house.

In that way, the 49ers are opposite of what has been reported about the Dolphins and their coaches allegedly instructing their most alpha player, guard Richie Incognito, to toughen up the sensitive member of the bunch, tackle Jonathan Martin.

Do the 49ers have a perfect locker room? Numerous DUIs and Aldon Smith's troubles suggest it isn't. And it may skew too far in the opposite direction from Miami's in being too reverential toward players, particularly young ones.

Asked this week whether as a teammate and friend, he had a responsibility for helping Aldon Smith, Justin Smith bristled and said he wasn't the younger man's babysitter.

On the day Aldon Smith was arrested for DUI, Justin Smith sloughed it off as no big deal.

"Sometimes stuff just happens," he said. "If everybody went looking through everybody's past, you'd find some stuff on everybody, even the people asking the questions. So, not concerned."

No 49ers player has more clout and gets more respect than Justin Smith, a 13-year veteran nicknamed "Cowboy." His locker is two down from Aldon Smith's. They line up next to each other on the defensive line. Both played at the University of Missouri.

Like Harbaugh, Justin Smith can't stomach introspection and doesn't discuss any inner workings of the team, what Harbaugh calls "peeling back the onion." And perhaps privately, he's had serious conversations with Aldon Smith.

But his remarks dismissing Smith's issues as trivial sends the wrong message to the public – and perhaps the wrong message inside the locker room.

Smith's September DUI arrest was his second. He also was arrested after his rookie season. Another player, Al Netter, had a DUI arrest after his rookie season last year. A third, Demarcus Dobbs, was in his second year when he was arrested for DUI last November.

Justin Smith was arrested for DUI in Ohio when he was 25 and played for the Bengals.

Acceptance, kinship and equality are wonderful – and perhaps unique – things inside a rough-and-tumble NFL locker room.

But some things shouldn't be tolerated.

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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