Henning: Harbaugh's response to protests bigger than a game

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Head coach Jim Harbaugh speaks with players.

Ann Arbor — Take a poll of America’s college football coaches. Ask them about Colin Kaepernick and kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against injustice in America, including instances of police shootings and beatings of citizens, African-Americans principally.

It is reasonable because of what we know about coaches and their generally linear, all-business spheres, that they would prefer Kaepernick and like-minded players take their grievances someplace other than a football field.

Jim Harbaugh, almost certainly, is from the Stick To Football fraternity.

But the University of Michigan’s football coach did something Saturday evening that was important. More important than having watched his Wolverines stomp on Penn State, 49-10, at Michigan Stadium.

He spoke afterward. Straightforwardly. Genuinely. About free speech. And how a group of his players deserved support and respect — disagreements aside — for raising fists during the pregame anthem, in solidarity with Kaepernick and other athletes who in recent weeks have been igniting passions and discussion within America.

“I can tell you what I believe,” Harbaugh said a few minutes into his postgame press conference, well after he had delivered opening thoughts about UM’s clobbering of the Nittany Lions. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks.

“And, because I’m the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe. I support our guys."

Off the cuff

Harbaugh can be pleasingly or irritatingly unpredictable when he speaks. Saturday will be remembered as a day when talking off script was an utter necessity.  He might have rehearsed in his mind the contours of what he would say, if and when his players acted. But there was nothing truncated, no sound bites, as he sat at a dais in his “M” cap and coaching togs talking about a pregame event that dominated postgame conversation.

“This is something that’s not going away,” he said, and here he seemed to be preparing everyone for a longer-term, growing push by athletes to be more socially involved.

“I’m not going to worry about something that doesn’t keep somebody out of heaven,” he went on, making clear neither his disagreements, nor the players’ convictions, were anything that should be judged recklessly. “It’s not something that’s going to keep them out of heaven, speaking their minds.

“There’s freedom of expression.”

Up the road in East Lansing the same relative demonstration and same relative coach’s view had played out earlier Saturday. Michigan State players had raised fists ahead of their thumping by Wisconsin. Mark Dantonio, MSU’s head coach, supported his players and their choice to take a stand not terribly popular within mainstream America.

And that can be considered a triumph.

UM, MSU players raise fists during anthem

These, after all, are universities. They were conceived and sustained as places where ideas and causes and discourse, however untidy or unpopular, could find a safe haven.

In the 1960s, when it might be argued America enjoyed some of its most significant progress during the past 100 years, university campuses were loaded with these kinds of against-the-grain calls for changes in a society’s fabric. Ann Arbor and East Lansing specialized in it.

It had been a long time since athletes had made any controversial calls to conscience, or, as they see it, to violations of that national social conscience.

But on the NFL’s grand stage Kaepernick last month lit a fire that, as Harbaugh acknowledged, might only have begun to blaze.

Here is why, and how, Saturday’s events can be appreciated as dialogue rather than disturbance.

The right to speak

At halftime, an amazing World War II veteran, a medal-winner and Battle of the Bulge warrior, was presented to 110,319 people awash in autumn sunshine at the Big House. He is a doctor, Robert M. Weber, whose wife and children and grandchildren hold, as he does, multiple degrees from Michigan.

Patriotism, valor, responsibility to one’s citizenship — all are virtues the good doctor had displayed during a war and a life that has helped preserve the very rights Harbaugh’s players exercised Saturday.

Also on the field, and in the concourses, and on the streets and thoroughfares surrounding Michigan Stadium, were police and law-enforcement personnel galore. They kept pedestrians safe and traffic moving. Their dogs sniffed bags entering the stadium as prevention against a nightmare.

Officers walked concourses and exchanged hellos with fans who rely on police for the security 110,319 people cannot otherwise obtain.

And so it is not a mutually exclusive issue, this dialogue we are having about responsibilities. It isn’t necessary to take sides in honoring a profession for its noble service as well as citizens’ demands for more safety and accountability.

That seemed to have been the great dividend from Saturday’s theater in Ann Arbor. What looked as if it was just another lopsided mauling of a visiting football team by Harbaugh’s steadily stronger bunch became, in fact, something more profound and enduring.

Harbaugh was right. You can’t tell people what to think. You can only allow them, when so moved, the freedom to be Americans in the America they aspire to create. 

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning