In sports, one thing is put above all else: winning.
Excuses are made for cheaters and gamblers on the tame end, and domestic abusers and sex offenders on the extreme end. But as long as they help your team win, it’s OK. Because in sports, that’s all that matters, right?
And Michigan is winning.
The football team just claimed its second straight Big Ten Title — accomplishing the feat for the first time since 2003-04 — and secured consecutive College Football Playoff appearances for the first time in program history. The men’s basketball team has made five straight Sweet 16s. The women’s basketball team reached unprecedented heights, making the Elite Eight in last year’s tournament. The hockey team made it to the Frozen Four once again. The gymnastics teams bring home banners, individual wrestlers have claimed titles and the suite of other varsity sports have found great success.
That success across the entire athletic department has been forged by hard work, dedication and — of course — moral compromise.
Because who needs accountability when you’re winning?
First, turn your eyes to the Big Ten Championship MVP and sophomore running back Donovan Edwards. After retweeting antisemitic rhetoric, the athletic department didn’t muster a very strong response. Edwards eventually apologized, only after saying it was a “glitch” — an unlikely scenario given the steps it takes to retweet something. University President Santa Ono put out this indirect statement, which fails to address Edwards himself or his actual actions.
Beyond that? Excuses.
You don’t know Dono like we do.
Dono didn’t mean it.
Dono’s a great guy.
The line went.
But “Dono” helped them win. That much is evident. So his actions were brushed under the rug.
Just this week, senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith faced felony gun charges. The incident dated back to Oct. 7, but the charge was filed Wednesday, and athletic director Warde Manuel left this lackluster statement:
“We are aware of the charge against Mazi from a traffic stop back in October,” Manuel said. “Mazi was honest, forthcoming and cooperative from the very beginning and is a tremendous young man. He is not and never has been considered a threat to the University or community.
“Based on the information communicated to us, we will continue to allow the judicial process to play out. Mazi will continue to participate as a member of the team.”
The Wolverines would’ve been hurting without their star player and team captain in the Big Ten Championship game. Of course he was going to play.
I know that Smith was in the process of getting his concealed carry license and the other facts of the case. I’m not here to say whether he is guilty or not. I’m here to say the athletic department failed to give substantive reasoning why a player charged with a felony wasn’t suspended even a game — instead being lauded in the press release — or why the news wasn’t disclosed sooner.
Had the athletic department known about the incident since Oct. 7, this becomes all the more complicated and all the more damning. There’s no way to know, but the past doesn’t look favorably on the athletic department’s track record.
Another star athlete — former point guard Zavier Simpson — also faced charges after a vehicle incident with police in 2020. Simpson, unlike Smith, was suspended one game. The issue in his case wasn’t the suspension, but the way the athletic department failed to properly address Simpson lying to police that his name was “Jeff Jackson,” how he was driving a vehicle owned by Manuel’s wife and how bodycam footage indicated an impaired state of mind.
Winning took priority over teaching lessons and molding young athletes — over being the “leaders and best.”
But passing over serious incidents doesn’t end there.
In former Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson’s case, there was a slew of disgusting infractions that Manuel and the department had known about for months before firing him earlier this year. It took public outcry before the facts of the case were deemed severe enough to result in action.
Because Pearson was a winner. His players were top prospects at NHL squads and the Wolverines were in the Frozen Four. Firing Pearson would likely result in a rough year for the Michigan hockey program.
That simply isn’t enough to excuse inaction — and there’s really no other explanation for it.
Really, this feigned ignorance and false moral high ground stretches much further back than the past couple years. Look at what’s happened with Bo Schembechler and the chilling accusations, corroborated by his own son, levied against him.
Still, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh praises him, and his statue still stands outside the hall given Schembechler’s namesake on athletic department grounds.
Because he was a goddamn winner.
And that should not be enough to pardon any kind of behavior.
Not every incident needs a suspension, firing or sweeping address, but athletes and coaches need to be held accountable for their actions. It’s not Manuel and the athletic department’s job to cover up its pupil’s failures — it’s their job to handle them properly.
And if Manuel and his department can’t, they’re the ones who should be held accountable.
Winning programs don’t excuse that.
Stoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @nkstoll