Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: 49ers’ off-field woes overshadow new stadium, loss

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

S You can open the doors on the prettiest new building in the NFL, celebrate the kickoff with 68,500 of your close friends, but when you throw a party and the most important person in the league declines his invitation, well, there is no ignoring the obvious.

This is a new era, a new beginning. But of what?

The 49ers are 1-1 and a hot topic for a number of reasons. Colin Kaepernick suddenly has morphed into a turnover machine. Vernon Davis has a bum ankle. The increasing number of injuries is troubling. But in a week of shocking, and far more significant, developments, the 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears – historic clunker though it was – still counts as only one game.

Kaepernick’s woes and the injuries figure to be resolved far more quickly than the 49ers’ image problem or the growing perception among many domestic violence experts, women’s groups, social justice advocates and even some of the team’s former stars – including the respected Steve Young – who believe the organization is bungling the issue.

Ray Rice – who can be seen slugging and knocking out his wife, then dragging her out of a hotel elevator – was suspended indefinitely when the incident was revealed on a tape. Adrian Peterson, who disciplined his young son with a switch that caused oozing cuts and abrasions, was deactivated by the Minnesota Vikings. Greg Hardy, who is appealing his conviction on domestic violence charges, played for the Carolina Panthers in the season opener, but sometime between Friday and Sunday – and after the Vikings reacted to Peterson – also was deactivated.

But Ray McDonald plays on. And the 49ers keep playing the same song, the one about remaining on the sideline and awaiting due process. While the defensive end is investigated for suspicion of felony domestic violence in an Aug. 31 incident that left his pregnant fiancée with “visible” marks on her neck and arms, members of the organization have declined to take action until the authorities decide whether to press charges.

Oh, wait. They benched broadcaster Ted Robinson two games for suggesting Rice’s wife, Janay, bore some responsibility for her husband’s horrific behavior.

The Rice matter, in fact, triggered a massive backlash that is reverberating from coast to coast, shaking the NFL and jeopardizing Roger Goodell’s job security. The embattled commissioner has been all over the map with his disciplinary measures (from the initial two-game suspension, to an indefinite ban of Rice, to a more punitive overall league policy), along with his supervision of the league’s investigative powers and process. What did he know and when? Who received the tape and who didn’t? And in a digital era of virtual and visual reality, why does this ordeal reek of Rose Mary Woods?

While Goodell skipped the 49ers’ historic opener amid the national firestorm, with the National Organization for Women (NOW) continuing to demand his resignation and 16 female U.S. senators screaming in his ear, the topic appeared to be tabled locally, overtaken at least temporarily by the excitement surrounding the opening of the stadium. Of the handful of fans I approached, all supported McDonald and/or endorsed the organization’s tempered approach.

“I’m the first person to speak up for someone regarding domestic abuse,” said Amanda Sanchez, a mental health worker and longtime season-ticket holder from Sacramento, “but Ray McDonald is entitled to due process. If he’s guilty, OK, then he deserves to get punished.”

Sanchez further noted the complexity of the matter and was aware of the contrasting opinions expressed by Young, Brent Jones and Ronnie Lott. The 49ers roster in recent seasons, in fact, includes a cast of characters you wouldn’t necessarily want your daughter or sister inviting home to dinner. Before signing with the 49ers, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and cornerbacks Chris Cook and Perrish Cox had been accused of or arrested on domestic violence charges.

But back to the stadium, a $1.3 billion monument to South Bay sports modernity. Any other time, with less vexing developments enveloping the opening, it would be quite the sight. On a footprint that is almost twice the size of Candlestick Park, the NFL’s newest, splashiest and most politically correct theme park offers something for everyone. The spacious parking lot was transformed into a massive tailgate party hours before the ticket gates opened, attended by spectators arriving in cars, on bicycles or via the nearby rail stations.

For those visiting the concession areas, large-screen televisions are clustered throughout the concourses. The views of the field appear almost universally unimpeded – including those from the top row, though binoculars are advised.

Additionally, the organization’s efforts to build the first pro football stadium to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification were apparent, with recycle bins abundant, subdued lighting in the restrooms and – perhaps most notably, given California’s drought – approximately 85 percent of the water utilized for restrooms, irritation and cooling systems recycled.

On this night, though, after the events of the past few weeks, the mood was somber, chilly, conflicting. A new era begins. But of what?

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