In a newsletter published earlier this month, we asked why Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme—allegedly perpetrated by ex-staffer Connor Stalions—wasn’t a bigger national headline, garnering a fraction of the attention and scrutiny heaped on Tom Brady in wake of his highly publicized “Deflategate” scandal in 2015.
Turns out, the story merely needed time to unfold, a slow burn culminating in Jim Harbaugh’s suspension for the final three games of the regular season. It didn’t take long for Harbaugh—who served a self-imposed three-game ban for recruiting violations earlier this year—to go on the offensive, maintaining his innocence while dismissing the scandal as a witch hunt, a carefully choreographed smear campaign hatched by a corrupt governing body threatened by Michigan’s continued dominance.
Michigan Football: “Gotta be America’s team.” — Jim Harbaugh pic.twitter.com/7MN4IPFJ3N
— College Transfer Portal (@CollegeFBPortal) November 13, 2023
Harbaugh would have you believe he’s a martyr, a victim caught in the crosshairs of a broken system. It’s a convenient narrative, deflecting blame and attacking the NCAA for singling out “America’s team,” as Harbaugh described them, throwing the book at Michigan while turning a blind eye to programs believed to employ similar tactics.
Steadfast in their loyalty to Harbaugh, fans of Big Blue have rallied behind their head coach, weaponizing generic legal terms like “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” Whether the controversy amounts to a slap on the wrist or a more punitive outcome (bowl ban, loss of scholarships, vacated wins, etc.), Michigan hasn’t shown an ounce of remorse, crying foul in spite of mounting evidence that Stalions, for years, recorded sideline footage at rival schools’ games.
Clear battle lines have been drawn between ESPN and Fox, pitting two media giants against each other in a war of public perception. Polar opposites in their political sympathies, it’s no surprise that Fox has immediately come to Harbaugh’s defense, with Colin Cowherd and others using their platform to minimize Michigan’s indiscretions while holding up the Wolverines as a pillar of class and professionalism. ESPN, with the notable exception of Michigan homer Desmond Howard, has taken a more critical approach, demanding accountability from a program that views itself as above the law, presenting the Wolverines as a portrait of entitlement and privilege.
And, lest you think ESPN has wrestled the moral high ground from Fox, preferring journalistic integrity to enabling a suspected cheater, consider that ESPN recently ceded its Big Ten broadcast rights, which are now held by Fox, NBC and CBS. In essence, ESPN is raking Michigan over the coals because it makes sense to, cleverly antagonizing Fox in an effort to sink the latter’s credibility.
Sports tribalism is a hell of a drug, one that highlights our ugliest tendencies as fans, many operating under the naïve assumption that every issue is binary with no room for nuance or compromise. Michigan’s “us against the world” act isn’t exactly subtle, though it is effective, serving as a dog whistle of sorts as America confronts its widening political divide, skirting responsibility and introspection for ruthless smearing, muddying the discourse with straw-man tactics and other false equivalencies. In mirroring the defiance displayed by indignant politicians and powerful authority figures who would sooner drive off a cliff than admit defeat, sports are no longer governed by shame, rewarding the loudest voice in the room at the expense of obsolete values like dignity and self-respect.
What we’re witnessing is a uniquely American phenomenon, mobilizing an army of blind followers in a never-ending cycle of denial and gaslighting, going to elaborate lengths to cast doubt on anyone who might have a bad word to say. Deshaun Watson, for instance, managed to squirm out of a sexual misconduct scandal that would have toppled almost anyone else, fighting fire with fire by hiring Rusty Hardin (the same defense attorney Roger Clemens used when he was accused of perjuring himself before Congress) to represent him in his civil suit. Similarly, Tom Brady (a Michigan alum, ironically enough) used every legal resource at his disposal to appeal his Deflategate suspension, delaying the ruling by over a year. The common thread is that Brady and Watson were so used to being catered to, revered as infallible celebrities immune to public criticism, that both had no choice but to lash out, wallowing in their own self-pity instead of accepting the consequences of their actions.
It might earn you some enemies along the way, but usually, if you’re willing to make a big enough mess, you’ll be rewarded in the end. Think of all the bridges James Harden has burned over the years, facilitating trades by creating a hostile locker-room environment. Readers of the true-crime genre may have heard about a new book titled Among the Bros, chronicling a multi-million-dollar drug bust implicating fraternity brothers at College of Charleston. In the end, only ringleader Mikey Schmidt faced significant jail time, perpetuating our societal belief that any obstacle can be overcome with enough power and influence. As Rachel Fleit articulated in her review for the New York Times, “As much as their classmates and victims might hate them, they know: ‘They’ll all be working for us some day.’”
Drama sells and Harbaugh, unwilling to accept his fall from grace, has certainly escalated the conflict, doubling down by fighting for an emergency injunction that could be granted, depending on how the judge perceives his testimony at Friday’s hearing. It takes a certain mindset to coach at a high level, requiring an acute understanding of what motivates players and, above all, an insatiable appetite for winning. Sports tend to mythologize the latter trait, celebrating coaches and athletes’ willingness to do whatever it takes, no matter how ugly or desperate, to achieve greatness.
That philosophy doesn’t apply just to sports, either. Think of how many Fortune 500 companies have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, benefiting from insider trading and other forms of corruption. Whether it’s Daniel Plainview’s famous “I have a competition in me” monologue or Logan Roy chastising Kendall for not being a “killer,” pop culture is rife with examples of ferocious alpha males winning by any means necessary. There’s a certain cruelness that pervades our society in this regard, stoking resentment and bitterness under the guise of “competition.” By normalizing outbursts like Harbaugh’s (which Cowherd commended as one of the “greatest speeches” he’s heard), college football has ensured that loathsome narcissists will continue to have a voice, playing the victim card whenever they’re backed into a corner.
Harbaugh is entitled to his day in court but spare us the (literal) tears of Sherrone Moore, who, after last week’s win over Penn State, launched into an expletive-laden defense of both Harbaugh and Michigan, inexplicably framing the Wolverines as underdogs inspired by their coach’s brave sacrifice. Michigan’s insufferable main-character syndrome, simultaneously bullying their detractors while insisting the universe is out to get them, is remarkable in its lack of self-awareness, feeding the delusion that Ann Arbor is the sun that all of college football revolves around.
Once the dust settles, Michigan will be left to ask itself, was it all worth it, going scorched earth on the NCAA, unleashing hell on everyone in their path (the Wolverines reportedly threatened to leave the conference, the rough equivalent of taking their ball and going home), just to have Harbaugh on the sideline against Ohio State? Perhaps not, though it’s better than the alternative of accepting their fate, resigned to an outcome that wasn’t their No. 1 choice.