Jeff Gross/Getty Images
By Austin Murphy
September 15, 2014

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There was pomp and circumstance, there were fireworks and party favors: each fan in brand-spanking-new Levi’s Stadium received an “Inaugural Season Home Opener Commemorative Ticket.”

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The stars were out – Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana saluted the fans; Snoop Dogg rocked the house at halftime – and the game, heartbreaking though it was for Niners faithful, was excellent. After somnambulating through the first half, the Bears hung around and rallied in the second half, then won it by converting a pair of fourth quarter interceptions by Kyle Fuller into touchdowns.

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But the keenly anticipated evening, the unveiling of the 49ers’ $1.3 billion new house, had lost considerable luster even before the Niners choked up a 17-point lead and saw their record slip to 1-1 on a day they could have taken a one-game lead over the despised Seahawks. The team’s brass made sure of that by demonstrating that it is deaf to the national conversation taking place on the subject of domestic violence.

Six days after the Ravens cut Ray Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely; about eight hours after the Panthers deactivated Greg Hardy for their home opener against the Lions, the Niners held firm in their decision to let Ray McDonald take the field against the Bears. McDonald was arrested on felony domestic violence charges on August 31. San Jose police said the alleged victim, reported to be McDonald’s fiancée, had “visible injuries.” The Sacramento Bee reported that she showed police officers bruises on her arms and neck.

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Of course all three cases are different. Rice’s brutality has been broadcast to the world. Hardy was found guilty in July by a Mecklenburg County judge of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, and threatening her life. He has appealed the verdict, which entitles him to a jury trial under North Carolina law. Before bowing to intense pressure on Sunday morning, the Panthers said they’d wait for the outcome of his appeal before delivering a punishment.

Ever since McDonald’s arrest, the 49ers have pursued a dual-track strategy on this loaded issue. Even as they proclaim zero tolerance for anyone who “physically abuses a woman and/or physically or mentally abuses or hurts a child,” as 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh put it, they have granted wide latitude to McDonald, who was released from jail on a $25,000 bond, insisting that to sideline him before all the facts are in would be to deprive him of his “due process” – to engage, indeed, in un-American activity.

The day after TMZ released that sickening Ray Rice video, 49ers CEO Jed York cautioned against a rush to judgment in McDonald’s case, warning on the radio station KNBR against a knee-jerk reaction: “Well, you didn't do it right with Ray Rice right away so you need to overdo it with Ray McDonald or whoever else it is.' And I don't believe that's the country that we live in.”

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As it happens, the country that we live in was convulsed last week by a videotaped left hook, and is currently in the midst of what coaches like to call “a teachable moment.” The sight of Janay Rice crumpling to the floor of that elevator opened the doors to a national dialogue, as James Brown of CBS pointed out in his refreshing, helpful monologue on Thursday Night Football. “Wouldn't it be productive if this collective outrage, as my colleagues have said, could be channeled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women and, as they said, do something about it?” Brown asked, before calling for an “ongoing, comprehensive education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.”

The 49ers are choosing not to participate in that national conversation. In the end, the cops may not charge McDonald. On Sunday morning, in what sounded suspiciously like a shifting rationale, a highly placed 49ers source told the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that the club believes McDonald is innocent, and that he’ll be released if it turns out that he’s lying.

In the meantime, he’s playing. McDonald's modest stats Sunday night -- two tackles -- belied his effectiveness against the Bears. Splitting double-teams and stalemating blockers, he was a big part of the reason Matt Forte rushed for 21 yards on 12 carries. While it’s common for companies to put employees on leave while they’re the subject of criminal investigations, those employees probably don’t play in a division as nasty as the NFC West, and probably aren’t as stout against the run and useful at eating blocks as is the 6-foot-3, 290-pound McDonald.

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As San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami points out, “There actually is no ‘due process’ to decide whether someone can play in a football game. Seven players off the active roster get deactivated every week.”

Last year, the 49ers let Aldon Smith take the field two days after the troubled sack artist drove his pickup into a tree in someone’s yard, then blew a .14 on the Breathalyzer, his second DUI since the club drafted him in 2011. McDonald’s case is murkier. But at the end of a week in which awareness of domestic violence elevated to unprecedented levels, the 49ers chose the integrity of their run defense over … integrity.

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