Jim Harbaugh was asked an open-ended question Monday, as reporters searched for his thoughts on the California bill that was passed last week allowing players to profit off their name, image and likeness. 

As the hot-button topic of the college sports landscape, it’s more than a reasonable question to ask of the highest-paid figure in the state of Michigan.

Harbaugh used the chance to expound upon — even flesh out — his own thoughts about amateurism, pay-for-play and potential reform options.

“My feeling would be that college football is an amateur status,” Harbaugh said, before detailing several hypothetical options to alter the system. “I think the fair thing to do would be, not to restrict players to have to stay in college for three years. They could be drafted after their freshman year, they could be drafted after their sophomore year, they can be drafted after their junior year, their senior year. I would also make a rule that if they weren’t drafted, they could return. 

“And they could also be very productive, if somebody were to leave after their freshman or sophomore or junior year and they hadn’t finished their degree, they’d have the ability within a certain timespan to come back and finish their degree. That would be what I would suggest or propose.”

After being pressed with a follow-up, Harbaugh said that he would, indeed, consider proposing that to the NCAA. That potential system would model that of college basketball, which is also rife with criticism at the moment. 

Still, though Harbaugh’s long-winded answers opened new avenues worth exploring, he hardly touched on the central thematic tension: compensation. Asked in a more direct manner about payment, he offered a different potential reform.

“I wouldn’t be against (payment),” Harbaugh said. “There could be a system that, like the scholarship, it’s really worth upwards of $100,000 or more, when you factor in room, board, food, travel, the many things. And that’s per scholarship, 85 players. You could have a system that cuts all scholarships in half — instead of 85 scholarships, there’s 42 scholarships. Forty-two players would play the scholarship plus the $100,000. If you did that across all sports, the budget could stay the same. It could be financially feasible. Kind of think the other way would be better. There’s amateur and there’s pro, and there’s no restriction for someone to take their shot at playing football.”

Harbaugh’s off-the-cuff musings are relatively representative of the national conversation writ large; one in which, while the rumblings continue to grow, the concrete ideas of amending — or abolishing — amateurism remain in the introductory phase.

Players, of course, will have their say in the matter as well. Asked throughout the week about the California bill, most Michigan players largely deflected answers. They pointed out that any reform would have no impact on their careers, and as such, they hadn’t invested too deeply in the outcomes. 

Without push from athletes, though, there could be no such major reform. Many, specifically more experienced players, understand their role in that — if still stopping short of being the harbingers of change.

“It’s really something that I’ve never really actually thought hard about,” said senior left tackle Jon Runyan. “But I think that basketball, and how they have it set up, where you can declare for the draft, go through the whole process, as long as you don’t sign an agent, and you can make a decision to come back to school … seems something that I guess is pretty reasonable.”

In college basketball, players must remain in school for one year prior to entering the draft, and can declare any year thereafter. The rule to which Runyan is referring, which permits player to enter their names in the NBA draft and participate in workouts before determining whether to leave or return to school, has been met with near-unanimous approval from players. It does bring about difficulties for coaches in formalizing rosters in advance of the season, and has had a marked impact on the transfer market as a result. Players, in that scenario, moved the needle.

Players like Runyan will undoubtedly have a say in the future of the sport. But it remains Harbaugh’s opinion which wields the most power. 

His presence drives hundreds of millions in revenue each year. His salary exceeds $8 million annually. Throughout his career, his traditionalist reputation has frequently been misplaced — he is, in many respects, a player’s coach. Harbaugh’s openness to reform, if still vague, serves as an example of the rising tides readying to flood the landscape. Coaches, it seems, should prepare themselves or be washed away.

“If you’re a tennis player and you’d like to be a professional tennis player at 17, you can be a professional tennis player at 17,” Harbaugh said. “To give the opportunity to somebody to be a professional football player when they’re 19, 20, 21. It’s not a long time. But the window to be a professional football player, if somebody’s good enough to do that, and then return and finish their degree probably would be appreciated and not taken for granted, and looked at for the value that it is — it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college education these days, plus room and board, books and tuition.”

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