Once in 4th grade, I had a classroom rumor dancing on the tip of my tongue. A friend had the hots for a certain young lady who sat in Group 4.
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?” asked the friend as we walked the hallowed halls of Julien Elementary.
“I won’t say anything,” I replied with the excitement of such highly classified information highballing through my veins.
Now, I was privy to a huge secret but had no concept of the responsibility that came with it. During a snack break, I told my seatmate. On the way home, I told my friends Zack and Kyle. The next day, I disclosed it to the girl.
The result: Absolutely nothing. There was no reason to tell anyone, other than to show off to others what I knew and what they did not.
Over the last few years, the executive office of the San Francisco 49ers has operated at a level similar to an immature fourth grader with a secret. Leaks and rumors sped out of the facility like a spacecraft making the Kessel Run. Once the pyrite-glimmer of a winning season turned to a dull-grey lead, the leak machine worked harder; management needed to find scapegoats for the on-the-field failures, rather than own up to ineptitude.
A mysterious “source” provided anything from locker room drama to potential firings and a player’s lack of skills to various local and national journalists. As a public and media affairs professional, I support feeding reporters information on background or off-the-record; that’s how journalism works, and that’s how a media team builds relationships with reporters. But there are three rules of thumb when being a journalist’s source:
One: The reader should not quickly identify you when he/she reads the story.
Two: The source should never be an organization’s CEO.
Three: Leaders should not create Nixon-style whisper campaigns against employees in the newspaper.
Jed York and Trent Baalke did things their way, under the rules they created as they went along. To them, it became easy to whisper the fate or tragic end of a coach and/or player to Jay Glazer or Trent Dilfer. Ultimately, it brought the team no closer to a championship, and it backfired in spectacular failure.
What Jed and Trent did create, whether by choice or default, was a toxic work environment. Then, when they needed a new coach, players or an assistant for Joan in accounting, they wondered why nobody wanted to work for the organization.
As the 49ers ended the 2016 season, the executive team was once again on the search for a new head coach and seeking out a new general manager. And fans were subject to more of Jed’s nonsense talk about Bill Walsh. But, as usual, Jed forgot one thing: Walsh didn’t field a championship team through press leaks and grade school rumors.
I have to wonder if someone or a group of people were able to drive that point home to Jed during January and February.
Jed, you must change the way you handle the organization. There’s a big black cloud of distrust that drips from the walls of the building and in the locker room. You brought this here; now you need to make it go away.
In fact, John Lynch used his hiring as a way to test the Jed York rumor mill:
“One of the great and liberating things for me, and I think why this thing came to fruition, I made a big deal that this stay quiet. First of all, you know what I was doing? Part of the rumors are things fly out of that building. And I wanted to see if I could trust this person. And so that was part of my thinking.” (Source)
Part of a rebuild is more than drafting a linebacker or signing a new fullback. Jed’s problem during over the last four years was not checking his ego and taking a real responsibility the environment he contrived. He surrounded himself with buddies and pals – all yes men – and then showered him with praise for talking to Jay Glazer off the record, or providing 49ers color commentator Tim Ryan with company-approved talking points.
Since February, the 49ers have taken a massive turn for the better, and not just on paper. They’ve done more than just flush the roster; they’ve thrown out the old media relations playbook in favor of something new. Last year, allowing a reporter to be with the team during the draft would have been unconscionable. Under the new management, I’d expect to see, and fully applaud, more media relations moves like this from Lynch and his team.