Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh grabbed a figurative broom Monday morning and began sweeping out the tide. He released a statement pleading for the 2020 college football season to happen.
“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players’ desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. He went on to cite the fact that the Wolverines athletic department has had no positives among the latest 353 players, coaches and staffers tested.
“We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play,” he wrote. “If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”
Jim Harbaugh Statement … pic.twitter.com/L5eGunfRls
— Chris Balas (@Balas_Wolverine) August 10, 2020
The temptation is to ask Harbaugh the same question Pete Carroll asked of him years ago: “What’s your deal?” But I know his deal.
Preservation of the status quo. At all costs.
We get it. We all grieve for the days before the pandemic. But the status quo is no longer retrievable, maintainable and likely never to be seen again. It is particularly ephemeral in big-time college sports, which has been perpetrating a con for more than 100 years.
They have persuaded generations of fans and players that student welfare comes first, as long as they accept the industry’s false value of amateurism. But COVID-19 has exposed the grifting.
Harbaugh, along with many of his professional brethren, are pushing hard to put unpaid athletes in harm’s way — beyond the demands of the game — for the sake of television revenues that help cover the years-long gross negligence of indulging in a football arms race, based on free labor, that was never affordable.
Finally, a crisis of great magnitude has abruptly allowed many players to say the quiet part out loud: They do not believe the colleges have their best interests at heart. Why? Because of things like what Harbaugh said:
“If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”
It’s apparent to anyone following current events that many Americans, especially college students, are NOT following the rules regarding limiting the spread of COVID-19. The spikes among young people are driving the latest surge.
Nor are all schools being transparent about testing results. Some aren’t publicly reporting infection data at all, and a lot of schools with fewer resources than Michigan can neither manage the volume of testing nor afford the labs that provide the quick turnaround times for results that make testing worth doing.
Harbaugh is ignorant, or poorly informed or just plain reckless. Maybe all three.
University presidents from the Power 5 schools spent the weekend and Monday talking among themselves about pulling the plug on the fall sports season, which may happen as soon as Tuesday. The talks follow the decision Saturday by the Mid-American Conference to be the first FBS league to announce that fall sports were impossible with the disease so widespread nationally.
These people are smart enough not to listen to Harbaugh. What I’d like to know is whether they are courageous enough to listen to a Harbaugh colleague.
Jeff Choate is the head coach at FCS school Montana State. Huskies fans may recall him as Washington’s defensive line coach and special teams coordinator when Chris Petersen came from Boise State, where they first met. Choate has been Bobcats head coach for four years, and last season went 11-4 and reached the FCS semifinals.
After the Big Sky Conference announced that its football was done in 2020, Choate, 50, did an interview with the The Athletic that was as sincere and honest as I’ve ever read from an active coach. I have no way of knowing whether Petersen shares the views of his friend, but if I did learn that, I would not be surprised.
“It’s heartbreaking for our sport,” Choate said. “Football only matters if you have money. The Power 5 commissioners and presidents backed the NCAA into a corner. The real tragedy here is we could not operate together in the best interest of our kids.
“It’s not whether we’re playing or not. The spirit of amateurism, which has been a fallacy for a long time, is totally gone now because we’re saying if you can afford to test your players at this level or provide for them at this level, then you can participate at this great game we call football. But if you can’t, then you’re less than. We’ve created a different caste system here.”
The Big Sky has 13 teams spread over eight states, all with different public-health rules and standards that needed, but never received, strong federal leadership. Nor did the NCAA institute policies that governed all of its constituencies.
“Instead of us acting all together and providing leadership in times of crisis, which is what leaders are supposed to do, and the NCAA is the leader of intercollegiate athletics, it’s just unfathomable that they said, we’re not going to do anything,” he said. “We’re just gonna kick this can down (the road). How about them saying, ‘Look, we’re in a crisis. Now is not the time to worry about playing football.’
This (late decision) is the price of inaction. This is the price of a lack of the leadership. I’m proud of the kids for stepping forward and at least acting like the adults, but it’s embarrassing that we couldn’t get any leadership for months from the NCAA.
“The money machine is driving this, man. You can’t say that we’re in a global pandemic and the money machine isn’t the thing that’s driving us. Everybody wants to take the moral high ground. The moral high ground was to have said this back in June — ‘Hey, now is not the time to do this. Let’s shut this down.’ Instead of forcing us all to act like we’re gonna play and dragging our kids through all of this BS and uncertainty. It’s a really bad look.”
Choate was not mad at conferences or individuals, but lamented that the arms race led football to be so dependent on TV revenues to fund its expansion.
“I’m not angry at them for doing it,” he said. “That’s people’s jobs. That’s people’s livelihoods. I get that. I’m just sad that it happened. It’s just sad that it came to it that the almighty dollar started to control that.
“Money changed that years ago, and I know I’ve benefited from that myself. You get why players are going, ‘Why don’t I get mine?’ How can you not? This is culmination of this long, downward spiral of the ideals of what college football is about. I’m not gonna be a hypocrite and say that I haven’t benefited from that. I have. But we just let things get out of control.”
The pandemic, too, is out of control. Big-time college football is a big-time underdog in that matchup.