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“According to the rules”

Competing with honor in sports should not be an outdated concept


Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh speaks at a news conference in Houston on Jan. 9. Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

“According to the rules”
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Now that he’s won a national title, I feel a tad conflicted about University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh (soon to be head coach of the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, as announced yesterday).

To begin with, I’ve met—and interviewed—the man: At the time, in late 2010, I’d just begun writing for the San Jose Mercury News. Harbaugh had just guided Stanford University’s football team to a top-tier bowl game, the Orange Bowl, four years after the Cardinal had gone a dismal 1-11. He would soon engineer a similar turnaround with my favorite NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers, taking them to the Super Bowl following the 2012 season—and erasing painful memories from several years of flat-out awful seasons—before moving on to Michigan, his alma mater, in late 2014.

Harbaugh’s youthful energy, affable demeanor, and seemingly boundless enthusiasm make him easy to like, in my view. The fact that he’s one of the few sports figures who openly and vigorously opposes abortion in media interviews makes me inclined to like him even more.

And yet, though Harbaugh’s Wolverines walloped the University of Washington—a hated rival of my favorite college football team, the Oregon Ducks—in the College Football Playoff (CFP) championship game at Houston’s NRG Stadium not long ago, I wasn’t exactly thrilled for him.

The reason: Harbaugh’s title is tainted.

That Harbaugh claimed his national championship in Houston is no small irony. The city’s Major League Baseball team, the Astros, won their first World Series title in 2017. Throughout that season, Astros employees used game feed from a hidden video camera to observe, decode, and relay to players in the team’s dugout the meanings of opposing teams’ signals.

It took Dusty Baker guiding the Astros to the 2022 World Series crown to cleanse the team’s stench from that scandal. Even now, though, it isn’t entirely gone, and as with the Chicago White Sox, who lost the 1919 World Series after eight players took payoffs from gamblers to drop games on purpose, it may never be.

Harbaugh has built winners at every stop he’s had as a head football coach. At Michigan, however, it seemed to take longer than usual: The Wolverines were also-rans in the hallowed Big Ten Conference in each of his first six years, losing to archrival Ohio State—an unforgivable sin in the eyes of Michigan fans—each time.

Then came 2021, when Harbaugh guided the Wolverines to an 11-1 record, his first victory over the hated Buckeyes, and a CFP berth. The following year brought more of the same.

If Harbaugh did, in fact, cheat, why did the NCAA not disqualify Michigan from this year’s CFP?

When a once-struggling team suddenly starts winning, the NCAA naturally gets suspicious. Investigators started poking around the Michigan program, and when recruiting violations came to light, the Big Ten hit Harbaugh with a three-game suspension. (The NCAA is still mulling over whether to dish out a harsher penalty to Michigan.)

Harbaugh sat out Michigan’s first three games. He then sat out three more at the end of the regular season after the Big Ten hit him with another suspension for allegedly stealing opposing teams’ hand signals.

That’s six games—40 percent of Michigan’s 15-0 season—Harbaugh missed due to alleged cheating.

Some college coaches have been fired for bringing such shame and embarrassment on their schools. Others have bolted for the NFL after leaving their universities to deal with the fallout—as Harbaugh has now done. While Harbaugh was flirting with NFL teams, he was also negotiating a deal with Michigan under which he would have reportedly received immunity from firing in the event the NCAA slaps the Wolverines with sanctions for his alleged misdeeds.

Frankly, such a move doesn’t look good. And the national title he just won conveniently gave him leverage to obtain such a contractual provision. Big-time universities typically don’t say “No” to coaches who bring home college football’s ultimate prize.

Which raises the question: If Harbaugh did, in fact, cheat, why did the NCAA not disqualify Michigan from this year’s CFP? Perhaps TV revenue had something to do with it: Sports fans tune in with hopes of watching villains fall. Perhaps the NCAA showed mercy to Michigan for alleged sins Harbaugh has, to some degree, paid for.

I may be among a select few sportswriters who still believes this, but honor should still matter in sports. It’s why I feel disgusted every time I hear sportswriters tasked with voting players into baseball’s Hall of Fame justify their decision to vote in admitted steroid users. It’s why I stopped admiring Tom Brady, the backup college quarterback turned NFL legend, after his ball-deflation scandal. And it’s why I applaud the NCAA for requiring its member schools to forfeit ill-gotten wins and even championships.

The Bible declares in 2 Timothy 2:5, “If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” As inclined as I am to like Harbaugh, if he did not, in fact, compete according to NCAA rules, the NCAA should take his crown away—pure and simple.


Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.

@RayHacke43


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