The scandalous details were appalling, with reports of sexual impropriety and boozing and team officials in embarrassing positions. The San Francisco 49ers stood as a potential emblem of ridicule, a blight on both the NFL and the community they presumed to represent.
This was in February 1992, when word leaked of a police report in which a 24-year-old cocktail waitress accused team owner Eddie DeBartolo of sexual assault. The report told of a gathering at a Menlo Park, Calif., bar that included numerous team executives--and allegedly at least two current or former players--which spilled over into a private party at one of DeBartolo's residences. The report also included allegations of extramarital liaisons, and when its contents hit the newspapers, the franchise braced itself for a massive p.r. nightmare.
Then, over the next several weeks, a curious thing happened: The would-be scandal went away. The DA announced no charges would be filed. No one was fired. The media stopped reporting on the incident, and fans got back to fretting over matters they really considered important: the status of Joe Montana's injured elbow, and whether he or Steve Young would be the quarterback to lead the team to a fifth Super Bowl championship.
This is a lesson that the Niners' current owner, John York, 56, should remember as he copes with the franchise's latest embarrassment--the leaking last week of a 15-minute in-house video ostensibly designed to counsel players on media relations. The tape included scenes of topless women, soft-core lesbian porn and, most troubling, insensitive portrayals of Asian-Americans and gays. It also lampooned San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, irking the same-sex-marriage advocate at a time when the team is seeking his support for a new stadium. The man who conceived and starred in the tape, team p.r. director Kirk Reynolds, resigned, and the public outcry has the team reeling with humiliation.
What has changed in 13 years? Two things: First, unlike his brother-in-law DeBartolo, with whom he has a horribly strained relationship, York is a charmless, condescending manager who in the six years he's been in charge has failed to build up any goodwill among his fan base. Secondly, also in contrast to DeBartolo, York has seemed more concerned with the financial bottom line than with the team's on-field performance, a notion enhanced by the Niners' 2-14 record last season.
In the wake of the tape's release, many critics have described it as emblematic of the franchise's demise. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan, to whom a copy was mailed anonymously before her newspaper broke the story, wrote on Sunday that "what the nation now knows, and what we now know if we did not already, is that the 49ers are a team that is rotting. It has lost its way, on and off the field.... An organization that for years represented excellence and even grace now has become a laughingstock."
That line of logic will resonate with Niners fans. Since York began running the franchise-- DeBartolo stepped aside after a bribery scandal in which he pleaded guilty to failing to report a serious crime and was fined $1 million--there has been a progressive decline in morale inside team headquarters. York's intimidating leadership style, sources say, has caused rampant infighting and maneuvering among various factions in the organization. It was such a toxic atmosphere that likely led to the tape's surfacing in the first place.
Though York, like the NFL and Newsom, issued a statement that condemned the tape, the owner reportedly knew about its existence for five months before deciding to take disciplinary action against Reynolds and spoke out about it only after copies began to circulate outside the building.
York, like everyone else involved in this mess, should be ashamed, but this being professional sports, he has a clear blueprint for restoring public confidence. First, of course, he must take measures to ensure that higher standards of sensitivity are applied throughout the organization. Secondly, he needs to start fielding a higher-quality product. Like his counterpart across the Bay says, "Just win, baby."
In January, around the time York decided to eat an estimated $10 million by firing G.M. Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson, a team source said York's wife, Denise DeBartolo York--Eddie's sister, who is the franchise's owner-chairman and true power broker--was so embarrassed by the Niners' league-worst record that she implored her husband to do anything, even (gasp!) spend more money, to restore the franchise's luster.