Many wondered whether the San Francisco 49ers would cut ties with Chris Culliver after he embarrassed the team, both with his words during Super Bowl week and his play during the game. There was never any chance of that happening for a couple of reasons. The first was simple: he’s an athletic defensive back who has performed extremely well at times, and the 49ers aren’t exactly deep at either cornerback or safety these days. The second reason was less about business and more about forgiveness: Culliver is a young player who had never broken any rules — written or unwritten — since joining the team, so even though his comments about homosexual players were egregious, there was no pressing reason to toss him aside without giving him a second chance.
Culliver also seemed to be making an effort since the season ended. He attended a meeting with the Trevor Project, a group that supports LGBT youth. And since those remarks he made to Artie Lange, Culliver hasn’t said anything homophobic. However, gay people aren’t the only targets of intolerant speech, and Culliver still seems to lack an understanding of how the media works, either social or otherwise.
Case in point (via SFGate):
If you’re like me, you probably need a translator to understand what exactly is going on in this back-and-forth texting dialogue Culliver inexplicably decided to post on Instagram. This post garnered well over 300 likes, which is strange because I’m not sure what there is to like about this. It’s not a photo, it’s not particularly funny or witty, and the words “bitch” and “hoes” jump off the page.
Oh, right. Culliver is a professional athlete for a popular team, which means there will be sycophants who click “like” no matter what he posts.
Despite the content of that “conversation,” Culliver’s filterless approach to connecting with the public is important. “We are aware of the matter, and it is being handled internally,” said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. What must Baalke be thinking right now? He’s preparing for the NFL Draft, and once again he has to deal with this young cornerback with questionable judgment who didn’t play very well in the team’s last five games.
If I’m Baalke, I’m thinking about making Culliver some other team’s problem.
It wouldn’t be easy to get much for him at this point, so this goes against the buy low/sell high approach that we’d normally recommend in this space. But Culliver seems so unaware of what he should or shouldn’t say or post that he almost seems like a lost cause.
It’s impossible to quantify how much any one incident distracts a team and how distractions correlate to wins and losses. What I can report firsthand was what I saw in the 24 hours after Culliver’s comments to Lange exploded: Jim Harbaugh had to answer questions about it the next morning, dozens of reporters congregated around Culliver’s interview table (which was mostly empty the day before when he shared that space with Tarell Brown), and several of Culliver’s teammates were bothered with this nonsense as well.
This stance isn’t as controversial as what Culliver said to the shock joke or posted on Instagram. Still, people who see Culliver as a high-upside player who didn’t break any laws will attack the headline of this post with a couple points I’ll address now.
He’s just a football player, who cares if he says dumb things?
Culliver has not shown much in terms of self-awareness or common sense away from the field, and that actually makes him an anomaly compared to the rest of the returning starters in the 49ers’ defensive backfield. Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner are smart players who aren’t making these types of errors in the public domain, at least not purposefully.
Free speech applies to everybody. Just because you don’t like what Culliver says, he still has a right to his opinion.
Once he retires, Culliver can say whatever he wants about people on Twitter or any radio show. He can buy a billboard and post his text conversations there if he wishes. However, like it or not he represents the San Francisco 49ers as long as they employ him. Since he isn’t the starting quarterback and the 49ers just signed Nnamdi Asomugha and have a zillion draft picks, Culliver’s words and the distractions they cause are an unnecessary burden. By trading Culliver, the 49ers risk taking a hit in the secondary. By keeping him, they risk dealing with a similar situation again. Perhaps the 49ers are waiting for a third strike before taking action beyond chastising Culliver behind closed doors.
Yes, the 49ers can send Culliver to sensitivity training and try to reform his attitudes. But it’s not like the guy is the second coming of Champ Bailey, and there are so many questions Baalke and the 49ers need to answer when deciding what — if anything — to do with Culliver.
- If the fallout before the Super Bowl wasn’t enough of a lesson, is he capable of changing?
- Why not let another team (the Bengals, perhaps) take the risk?
- How much is Culliver worth on the open market?
- How much is he worth to the 49ers?
- What will he do next to get the wrong kind of attention?