NEW ORLEANS -- This, right here, is the “distraction” coaches say their teams want to avoid. This, right here, is the “distraction” coaches say their teams are strong enough to overcome.
This, right here, is what keeps entire franchises awake at night wondering what unforeseen calamity can derail so much work.
This, right here, is why the Super Bowl is more a cultural event than a sporting event, and the arbitrary rules of the outside world absolutely apply more than ever.
This was Chris Culliver’s moment, and for the most part he endured it while looking like someone who had been taken to the woodshed.
[Y! Sports' Wetzel: Culliver's remarks, Te'o episode make it hard for active gay athlete to go public]
Which he had been, the day before, by head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. “The general manager told me something had happened before we went out to practice, and he needed to talk to me,” Culliver said Thursday morning. “The after practice, I talked with Jim and Trent . . . for an hour and something.”
The details, he did not share. The tone was written all over his face. And in the 49ers’ statement Wednesday, and in Harbaugh’s terse answer to the question on Thursday.
“We reject what he said,” Harbaugh said. “That in no way reflects how the organization feels, and how most of the players feel. His impact going forward on the team is something we'll think about. He will learn from it, he made a statement, and he pledged to grow from it. We hope it will affect him in a positive way going forward.
“But I do believe that there wasn’t malice in his heart. He’s not that kind of person. He’s not an ugly person. He’s not a discriminating person. He may have heard talk like that and may have thought that that was what his opinions were that he learned, but he regrets that. That’s not who he is, that’s not what he really believes in. I think it took this incident to hear those words being said by home and to see them written down on paper, for him to realize that they were hurtful and ugly.”
In short, Harbaugh didn’t stand guard over Culliver’s reputation, but he did try to offer him an out. He knows, or has been informed, how badly this plays, both inside and outside the building.
“I was really just . . . not thinking,” Culliver said repeatedly Thursday morning. “It was something that I thought, but definitely not something I feel in my heart.”
He apologized repeatedly as well. He spoke of a phone conversation he had with his mother, and a subsequent conversation with an unnamed gay relative, which he described as amicable. “I told him how I felt about it, and he said he knew what was in my heart. It was good.” He did cite the uncoordinated nature of Media Day and the “disrespectful” questions of radio host Artie Lange as contributing factors, but stopped short of saying he’d been somehow duped or misled into his responses.
In sum, he stayed on point, with 49ers media relations director Bob Lange standing behind him silently while the questions came in waves. The only time Culliver did not look morose was when he was asked about his background, growing up in Philadelphia and South Carolina.
The press conference, with him at a table bracketed by as many as 40 media members, was a testimonial to how much work had been spent on an issue that had nothing to do with the game. Many people spent many hours Wednesday afternoon and evening trying to craft a message with and for him that could ease the problem he created for himself and his teammates. His remarks about gay teammates are in and of themselves extraordinarily inflammatory and insensitive, contrary to club policy, privacy rights and human decency.
[REWIND: Ray Ratto -- Chris Culliver ignites firestorm]
And those of you with differing views on this issue can argue them elsewhere. This isn’t about the remark. This is about the reaction, and how much work had to go into it.
When Culliver said them to Lange, they became the team’s issue. One question became 53 questions, delivered 530 ways with 5,300 follow-ups. It teetered on the edge of an actual game-prep-affecting distraction.
Whether it actually is, of course, will be answered Sunday. If the 49ers win, most will be forgiven. If not, some will declare that Culliver’s moment fractured the focus. And whether that is true or not almost doesn’t matter in terms of the most salient point, which is this:
Jed York was embarrassed. As someone who has been on the forefront of anti-gay bullying action in the NFL, he had to spend his Thursday grappling with L’affaire Culliver rather than basking in the reflected glory of his team.
[RELATED: Jed York says Chris Culliver's comments were "dumb and insensitive"]
And an embarrassed owner is nobody to trifle with. Culliver’s future in San Francisco will depend on (a) his playing skill, (b) his willingness and ability to reach out as often as possible to engage people on the subject away from the field, and (c) just how much grief York takes on the subject.
Indeed, the worst-case scenario is that York decides in the off-season that Culliver cannot remain an employee, Harbaugh resists an intrusion into his purview, and the two have their first real set-to, the result of which could affect their relationship for years.
The best scenario for them, of course, is that the 49ers win Sunday, from which peace and joy reigns throughout the kingdom, Culliver or no Culliver. And there are any number permutations between those two poles.
But Culliver’s moment of infamy is a turning point in the week, the off-season, and maybe for the franchise. It all depends on how subsequent events play out, and how much uncalculated collateral damage has been done.
That, my friends, is your Grade-A distraction.