It’s time to drop the superiority act.
For years — decades, even — the University of Michigan and its athletic department has tried its best to cultivate a specific image that it desperately wants you to believe in:
“Leaders and best.”
While that phrase may have once been an accurate description, it’s now simply an aspiration. It’s what the Wolverines want to be — it’s what they want you to see them as. But, right now, it’s not what they are.
The most recent of the cuts marring Michigan’s appearance is a number of NCAA violations, the majority of which are “slap on the wrist” type allegations. The most serious, though, is a Level I allegation that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh failed to comply with NCAA investigations of the other violations. That’s no small matter. And it doesn’t matter if what he’s lying about is serious or not, lying to cover up violations is inherently punishable and deplorable behavior.
And Harbaugh — a 59-year-old man, father and long-time football coach — knows that. Most of all, he knows his actions have repercussions beyond his own.
Harbaugh could face suspension, and Michigan could face other consequences, whether he remains the coach in Ann Arbor or departs for the NFL. Still, Harbaugh allegedly misled and obscured the NCAA during the investigation of those other violations, a reckless decision at best.
Lies, disruption, investigations, violations — it’s not a good look. And while they try, it’s hard for the Wolverines to stay up on their high horse after news like that breaks.
Especially when Michigan picks and chooses when to apply the moral code that keeps it saddled.
The Wolverines have no reason to violate, lie and, for lack of a better word, cheat their way to small amounts of success when there’s better — NCAA legal — options that they fail to exploit. Case in point, Michigan foolishly acts above the basis of name, image and likeness (NIL). Sure, the Wolverines encourage their athletes to pursue NIL, but they look down on programs that give up bags of money for uber-talented players and, as such, fall painfully behind those same programs in the NIL frontier.
“Our philosophy is that coming to the University of Michigan is going to be a transformational experience rather than a transactional experience,” Harbaugh said June 2 of last year, throwing shade at the more direct methods of utilizing NIL.
As evidenced above, Michigan does want players to make money and get paid, but it doesn’t want to be the one signing the check.
The Wolverines have shied away from that frontal approach, allowing the money to trickle in from other external sources. Sure, the Champions Circle — Michigan’s NIL collective — eventually came along, but only eight months after initial collectives were formed and four months after rival Ohio State got its The Foundation collective together. To their own fault, the Wolverines are consistently behind other programs when it comes to NIL.
Maybe paying 18-year-olds isn’t the most traditional way to attract talent and build a program, but neither is lying. And neither is making contact with recruits during the recruiting dead period in the height of the pandemic — one of the Level II allegations.
Michigan draws moral lines in the sand that don’t make a grain of sense.
Why is writing a check to a recruit (something now legal) worse than obscuring an investigation? If you’re going to be a program that breaks the rules to win, why not get your hands “dirty” within the rules instead?
Between the misconduct and scandals within the athletic department — and everything else within the University that has come to light — within the past few years, the Wolverines have no claim to the moral high ground. The footing Michigan used to stand on has eroded away until there’s no longer anywhere left to place its feet.
Stop pretending the perch is still there. Keeping up that facade will only hold the Wolverines back from the opportunity to move forward in the new landscape of college athletics, while actions like Harbaugh’s alleged lies claw away at anything that’s actually left.
Don’t lie to the NCAA, throw a bag. At this point, who cares? It won’t make Michigan look any worse than it already does. And it might actually help the Wolverines win — legally, to boot. The holier-than-thou approach only works when your program is actually better than all the others on and off the field — and right now, Michigan is neither.
Until it is, forget the moral high ground.
Stoll can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nkstoll