San Francisco 49ers LB Aldon Smith was arrested Thursday night, accused of hit and run, DUI, and vandalism. With a grim and heavy tone, head Coach Jim Tomsula announced today that Aldon Smith would be released from the team. "Aldon Smith has been working really hard to correct things that need to be corrected, and he has been working hard to do the right thing," Tomsula said. Unfortunately, his recent behavior was enough to bring about the end of his football career-- for now.
The 49ers head coach also used the event as an opportunity for compassion. "We care about that guy. Deeply," he said. "If you are struggling, go get help." Tomsula emphasized, "He will not have to walk this road alone."
Smith's behavior has included personal conduct violations that resulted in a nine-game suspension last season, belligerence with a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport, and two other DUIs before last night's arrest. Nonetheless, the 49ers organization has taken an empathetic stance towards Aldon Smith. Though he will not be playing football with the 49ers this season, Smith is able to move forward in his recovery and rehabilitation with dignity and support thanks to the unconditionally supportive attitude of his head coach who saw past Smith's questionable behavior and has chosen to focus instead on Smith's humanity and ongoing quest for personal growth.
While many would be quick to judge Aldon Smith, oftentimes there can be underlying factors behind questionable choices and dangerous behavior. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, spoke to me about conduct disorders in general. Tomsula's perspective that Smith is a man in need of rehabilitation, not shaming and draconian punishment, is not baseless. Dr. Lieberman explained, "When you see people who are having behavioral disturbances in terms of disobedience, aggression, resistance to conformity, and rebellion against authority, the question is what is motivating it? There is a broader range of factors that account for this beyond the traditional explanations. Neuropsychologic problems, for example, can transform into social problems."
The 49ers coach has indicated Smith has been working on himself, saying, "He is in the process of turning his life around. People stumble." While Aldon Smith's specific circumstances are unknown, the exposure to head trauma so common in the NFL can exacerbate existing problems and engender its own unique difficulties. Lieberman explained, "The brain is susceptible to physical and ethereal insults as opposed to just physical insults... For that reason you can see where people who emerge from careers as soldiers and athletes may be at higher risk for having ensuing mental disorder."
The 49ers supportive words about Smith are not an endorsement of criminal behavior; rather, they are a recognition that Aldon Smith is a human being, facing unique struggles and challenges as he attempts to get his life back on track. One of the game's best pass rushers will not be on the field this year, but hopefully the dignity the 49ers afforded to Smith in the way his coach announced his release will provide him the motivation to work through his most recent set back.
Aldon Smith's departure is the latest in a mass exodus from the 49ers that began in the off season with the retirements of Chris Borland, Anthony Davis, Justin Smith, and Patrick Willis.
Updated 8/7/2015 at 1:10 with comments from Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman.