Ethan Sears: A Jim Harbaugh controversy with no substance

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 8:47pm

Coach Jim Harbaugh caused a stir on Twitter with his mischaracterized statements about COVID-19.

Coach Jim Harbaugh caused a stir on Twitter with his mischaracterized statements about COVID-19. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

Jim Harbaugh went viral on Twitter Wednesday. 

“Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t think playing sports will make the COVID-19 outbreak worse,” screamed the Twitter moment.

“COVID is part of our society,” he said in a Zoom call with media earlier in the day. “Wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports. And there’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse. It’s part of our society, we’re going to have to deal with it.”

The uproar was predictable.

Except, well, that wasn’t really what he said. At least, it wasn’t all of what he said. Or even close to all of what he said. Here’s all of what he said:

“Yeah, my thoughts would be, it’s a different conversation if there’s no students on campus. If students are on campus, then my personal belief as a parent of a daughter who would also be on campus that this is a safe place. As safe as possible, would be within the University, in our athletic buildings and complexes. That safety precautions that have been put into place.

“I would feel good with the medical oversight of the students, student athletes. I would want the responsibility. I would want the responsibility of keeping our players safe and also educating them. I would not want to come off of that guard tower of educating and keeping our players safe.

“Now, if it comes to a point in time where you say that we can’t play, it’s obvious, it’s clear, then everybody would be reasonable and know that was the right thing to do. COVID is part of our society. Wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports. And there’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse. It’s part of our society, we’re going to have to deal with it.

“These kids are going to have to do the same thing. They’ve got to go to school. They’ve trained their whole lives for the opportunity to play their sport. That is my view with the knowledge that we have and time to learn more about it. It would be my responsibility, our responsibility and the players’ responsibility also, to keep themselves safe and get the schooling and training that they need.”

That doesn't sound like a football coach putting himself ahead of unpaid kids so he can make money amid a pandemic. 

It sounds like someone who’s spent the last four months talking every day to people about whether or not a football season will happen and if so, how it can happen. It sounds like the parent of an athlete (as well as another student) at the University — cautious, but willing to go along with the plan in place. It sounds like that because that’s exactly what it is.

I’m tired of this song and dance we do every time Harbaugh gives his actual opinion on something. Frankly, it makes me understand why he often goes out of his way to not say anything interesting. It’s exhausting.

That’s not to say he should get a free pass to say whatever he wants. If you want to rip Harbaugh for suggesting football might be possible, that’s fine. Football might well not be possible. I don’t know and neither does he. But criticize in context.

He noted the importance of students being on campus, which University President Mark Schissel and Athletic Director Warde Manuel have said is a must if football is to happen. Harbaugh noted the safety precautions in place, both in athletic buildings and the rest of the University, and it’s clear that if Michigan’s reopening plan fails, it will almost certainly be due to behavior that happens outside the purview of those guidelines. 

He’s probably wrong in saying no expert thinks sports will make it worse …. but an epidemiologist told The Athletic the risk is hard to quantify if students are already on campus, and might be mitigated by extra testing. So at minimum, there’s certainly no consensus over whether sports would make it worse.

“Jim Harbaugh doesn’t think playing sports will make the COVID-19 outbreak worse,” obviously sounds a lot better than, “Jim Harbaugh is optimistic that football season can happen safely if players and coaches follow extensive safety protocols that will be in place if universities allow students back for in-person learning.” Maybe that better explains the issue than the last 700 words of this column.

Here's the thing, though. If doctors and epidemiologists tell him it isn’t safe, Harbaugh won’t marshal 130 players and staff onto a plane to Seattle so Michigan can play Washington on Sept. 5. One source told The Daily that game is highly unlikely to happen, which comports with, well, basic logic. Though he won’t say it publicly, Harbaugh surely knows that, too.

While Twitter was ripping him to shreds, here’s what else Harbaugh said about the novel coronavirus and how it’s affecting his team:

“I’d say the biggest question I’m really getting from our players is how they can be a part of the solution. A lot of the feedback has been that their peers, other people in their age group, are somewhat or very cavalier about the virus. How it affects that age group. Their response has been they want to be part of the solution. 

“They want to be a force for good, an example when they’re here. There’s protocols that have been put into place. They’ve been terrific. They’ve been really great about following those. I think they really understand there’s great value to keeping their own personal health but that of their teammates. 

“They’ve taken it to the extra level where they’re out in public to wear a mask, to socially distance, cooking their own food, shopping. Everything they’re doing, they’ve been a really great example and a force for good.”

Let’s not be naive here — the entire Michigan football team probably won’t be perfect. That’s OK. Most people won’t be, and that deserves understanding after four months of quarantine. 

But Harbaugh has worn a mask in public and participated in a PSA for the state of Michigan way back at the beginning of this whole thing. It’s utterly ridiculous to suggest he’s been on the wrong side of this.

Yeah, he’s a little biased. Jim Harbaugh wants football to be played in the fall.

Guess what?

He’s a football coach. This is his job. Of course he wants football to be played in the fall. So do I. If you’re reading this column, you probably do, too. 

He’s also not an idiot. So stop acting like he is.

Ethan Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.