What Does Breaking The Rules Even Mean In A Sport Where Everyone Cheats?
2:14 PM EST on November 14, 2023
I am not a Michigan fan. I have no dog in the fight. But I might be the only person in the world that doesn't harbor strong feelings about Jim Harbaugh in any direction. The people in Michigan are ready to treat him like a martyr right now, and everyone else, particularly commentators and sportswriters, seem to want him burned at the stake. But I, as the only voice of reason among this chaos, see this entire Connor Stalions investigation for what it really is—a lot of protesting too much.
There are a lot of people who do not work in collegiate athletics that want you to buy into the sacred nature of college football. There is a bedrock belief that the NCAA and its leagues have routinely done the right things for the sake of preserving the purity of the college game. And Michigan, with its alleged interstate sign stealing scheme, chose to break the laws of God, and his closest non-celestial proxy, the NCAA, and must be punished to the strongest degree. But no one who watches college football and accepts the sport for what it actually is believes any of that. To watch college football is to know this essential truth: it is among the most corrupt sports in the world. By now we have enough history to know that the NCAA only comes down on its programs when it wants to take their profile down a notch or two.
I don't want to suggest that there's some kind of conspiracy happening against the Michigan Wolverines, because that's not what this is either. But it seems more than obvious that a lot of the smoke rising from this scandal is about how much people really hate Jim Harbaugh. He is the Principal Skinner to the NCAA's Superintendent Chalmers. He is a tick on the neck of every organization, every league, and seemingly every sports pundit that ever met him. Stephen A. Smith doesn't like him and he's dear friends with everyone. As a result, the perpetually gassed-up climate of sports media has now ignited with people rushing to declare that something must be done to prevent Michigan from reaching the college football playoff.
Let's be real for a moment. There is just no way that you can watch Michigan over its last three years and believe that sign-stealing is the sole reason they are good. You're not gonna make a strong enough case to convince anyone that watches them play. And as much as people at Ohio State are salivating for a reason to vacate two-straight years of losses to Michigan, the petty squabbling of any fanbase shouldn't influence a league or the penalties it hands out. Regardless of what you think about Harbaugh or Michigan, if the Big Ten has no actual evidence of crimes, suspending him was a weak move. And if there is evidence they should share it with the rest of the class. Despite what Paul Finebaum says, if this were the SEC they'd have buried whatever evidence was found and dared the NCAA to do something about it, because this is what history tells us you do for one of your premier programs. And yes, as funny as it is to watch Michigan assistant coaches cry like Big Jim is dead or read Michigan Men whining like overeducated babies, the fact remains that even in a system as fraudulent and made-up as the NCAA, you can't punish someone just because you "feel" they did something wrong.
Harbaugh isn't doing himself any favors, but he's never done himself favors. He is part sociopath, part poodle. His state of the union speech yesterday did more to validate the working assumption that he's insane than anything else. Referencing A Few Good Men, a movie I guarantee you he has never seen, and calling Michigan "America's Team" is pretty much Trump shit. And maybe that'll work in the locker room, but it's not gonna endear you to the people that will pass judgement on you very soon.
My argument is not that Jim Harbaugh is innocent—he is absolutely guilty as hell. My point is: so what? If and when Michigan is properly punished, it won't be for sign-stealing, it'll be for getting caught. When Michigan defended its position, they provided documents showing the sign-stealing maneuvers of the other schools in their conference, because yeah, they all do it. And everyone knows they all do it. Just like everyone knew everyone else paid for players in their own sneaky ways, just like everyone knew coaches would get hired from one school to another and share in-house secrets. Because of the new era of NIL, the NCAA has run out of ways to assert power in their petty dominion over the sport and now anything even a little bad is turned into a scandal of high order, simply for the sake of reminding us of the honor of collegiate athletics. It's nostalgia in service of a time that never existed. This is the sport of cheaters. It's all a part of that awful, horrible, incredibly fun college football black magic.