Detroit — Say what you will about Jim Harbaugh — and everyone does — but the man loves to think. You could argue he thinks too much at times, trying to outflank the establishment and spur discussion on rules and transfer guidelines. Dialogue is good, and also taxing.
Harbaugh’s latest proposal is a provocative one. He suggests college football players be allowed to declare for the NFL after any season, even as freshmen, and be allowed to return if not drafted. There’s also a component that incentivizes education, in which players who leave early and sign an NFL contract could return — but not play — and get two more years of paid schooling.
He makes worthy points, although not everybody will like the ideas. Harbaugh has coached and played at the highest levels of the sport, pro and college, and never been shy about espousing his beliefs, even if they tick off his competitors.
I enjoy the free flow of thoughts. My only concern: Does Harbaugh’s obsession with “fixing” things come at a cost? In the quest to raise awareness and ask important questions, does the greater good become too much of a focus, or a fight?
And no, this is not a statement on his inability to beat Ohio State or win a Big Ten title. For some, that’s the only issue that matters, everything else is an unnecessary distraction. Hey, that’s the game, fair enough.
Harbaugh knows he’s viewed through the prism of his record — which is still good, outside of the two major gaps — and not the persistence of his social messages. There will be some who dismiss his “Open Letter to the Football Community” delivered Thursday as a self-serving end-around, a way to balance the competitive field in a wildly unbalanced sport.
That’s the simple response, and there usually is a competitive element to Harbaugh’s ideas. But if you think that’s his sole motive, you haven’t been paying attention.
The real math
In theory, the talent-laden elites — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU, Georgia — would figure to lose more stars earlier. But do you really think such an expansive revamping is merely a gambit to drag down the powers by enticing a few players to the NFL quicker? And if so, wouldn’t it come at a cost to Michigan’s roster, which supplies plenty of players to the draft? And really, how many freshmen and sophomores across the nation would it affect? More than 10?
Harbaugh has been inquisitive on a variety of social issues over the years, and not just to help win games. He has worked with Legal Services Corporation, which provides support for low-income people. As coach at Stanford in 2007, his outspoken comments spawned a spat with his alma mater, when he questioned the academic standards for Michigan athletes.
When Harbaugh famously outmaneuvered the NCAA and conducted satellite camps across the country, it was a way to boost Michigan’s recruiting, and also a way for kids to get noticed by more programs. The SEC, whose territory was invaded, fought it hard and the NCAA ended the practice.
The Wolverines’ celebrated spring trips to Italy, France and South Africa drew plenty of attention and a few eye-rolls from the competition. They also raised Harbaugh’s profile and the program’s brand, and provided an invaluable experience for the athletes.
Harbaugh continues to strongly endorse the “one-time transfer” rule, which would give players one opportunity to move without sitting a year. It’s an idea that has gained momentum — to the ire of many football and basketball coaches — and if not for the current pandemic uncertainty, it might have been instituted already.
I’m leery of the idea because some players will make impetuous, ill-advised decisions and bail at the first hint of adversity. But I understand the hypocrisy in opposing it. Last year, Harbaugh came under fire for not supporting the transfer of offensive tackle James Hudson to Cincinnati. How was that consistent with his player-movement mantra? Harbaugh said he couldn’t support or block it, and it underscored why the one-time transfer rule made sense, so a player could be immediately eligible without explanation.
Some elements of Harbaugh’s proposal perhaps are unrealistic. He’s challenging the status quo, even though the status quo has made him and the sport successful. He’s adamant on the overriding goal — to give athletes more control over their careers.
“The NFL has a voice at the table, the NCAA has a voice at the table, athletic administrators, coaches, presidents have a voice at the table,” Harbaugh said on Jon Jansen’s “Michigan Football: Inside the Trenches” podcast. “Student-athletes and their families, that’s why this proposal was written, to give them a voice at the table.”
It’d be a radical shift that could have unintended consequences. The notion of players being allowed to leave as freshmen or sophomores would require an agreement between the NFL and its players' association, and good luck with that. But Harbaugh’s point of “early bloomers” in college football these days is well-taken, with the notable example of Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Frankly, it’s a better idea than the impractical nonsense many have promoted for years. You know the tired debate: Pay the players! I don’t care how much, or who, or for how long, or from which bank account, just pay them!
All of them? Or just the really good ones?
Just pay them!
Chasing the check
That argument looks even weaker now. What better way to give players control of their finances, and their futures, than by letting them go pro when they feel they’re ready? Instead of doling out some small stipend, the athletes could make their own decisions, and if they choose poorly, there’s the safety-net component to return to college.
Compensation for athletes already is being addressed. Harbaugh is in favor of the new NCAA recommendation on NIL, which if instituted, would allow athletes to be paid for their name, image and likeness. For instance, endorsement opportunities outside the school.
There’s still plenty to figure out, but it’s a product of deeper thinking, and an acknowledgment the sports world isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago. Most of the eligibility rules for college football were enacted in 1990, and athletes are far more advanced now.
Football is different than basketball and baseball because of the physical demands. That’s why a three-year minimum in college has always been accepted in football, and not in other sports.
It’s fair to wonder if times are changing faster than we realized. The average pro football career is three-and-a-half years. If you add three years of college, a player generally has only 6-7 years of high-level competition.
“So you’re saying, OK, of those 6-7 years, three have to be unpaid in college,” Harbaugh said. “What if the individual is physically, mentally and emotionally developed to where he can use his average of 6 or 7 years as a paid player? It’s well-intentioned when they say this is what’s best for you. That might’ve been the way of the world decades ago, but in my opinion, it’s not the way of the world now.”
Some coaches, fans and observers won’t embrace it, and won’t get past the messenger. But they should get the point. And if they don’t like the point, they’re free to make a better one.