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Midweek Musing: Jim Harbaugh, Les Miles, and the problems of a “zero-sum game”

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Win at all costs means different things to different folks. For two coaches, it apparently means ALL costs.

Big Ten Football Media Days

At Big 12 Media Days last week, Bob Bowlsby took to the podium to open the festivities, speaking on several topics that impact the conference he presides over as well as some that affect the future of college football on the national scale. He continued to hype up the Big 12’s play everyone mantra, mentioning the slogan that “The Big 12 is won by who you play, not who you don’t.” He spoke about how the round-robin schedule presents a unique challenge for the four new coaches in the league, whose programs were picked to occupy the four bottom slots in the preseason media poll, saying “they all have lots of work to do and they all have the vision right in front of their consciousness that there aren’t a lot of days off in the Big 12. Every week during the season is going to be a brutal contest and, you know, it’s a zero sum game. Somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose.”

While we can talk scheduling and expansion and all that nonsense until our heads turn blue, the phrase zero-sum game stuck with me for another reason. College Football is just that - every week there is a winner and there is a loser and for the latter, any loss could not only cost you your job, but any future opportunity to earn. And that instills a fear in the men running programs that convinces them to do some very, very stupid stuff from time to time.

We have seen a couple stark examples of that as Media Days have played out across the country, namely by two prominent head coaches well-known for head-scratching decision-making. Les Miles, newly installed at Kansas, and Jim Harbaugh, the now fourth year lead at Michigan.

Harbaugh, well known for singing the praises of recruiting “Michigan Men”, a stupid phrase which is supposed to mean one whom stands for “honor, sacrifice, pride in your program, and humility in yourself, all in one.” What it really seems to mean is whatever applies to whoever they hire or recruit.

During B10 Media Days last week, when asked about a pending transfer case, Harbaugh thought the appropriate response was to say this: “The youngster that says, ‘OK, this is a mental health issue. I’m suffering from depression.’ Or that’s a reason … they’re getting eligible. Once that’s known, they’re just (getting told to) ‘Say this, or say that to get eligible.’ The problem with that is they’re going to say ‘OK, yeah, I’m depressed,’ say what they’ve got to say.” Basically, Harbaugh is accusing players of faking mental health issues in order to get immediately eligible at their next program. In this instance, he’s likely implying the case of James Hudson, a player who left his program for Cincinnati last October, and applied for immediate eligibility due to his mental state in Ann Arbor. Hudson’s mom responded in an interview with ESPN, saying “this is why people don’t come out and say these things, because people don’t believe them. So it upsets me because athletes of all people -- I mean there’s lots of athletes who suffer with depression, I’m sure, that don’t say anything. But again, hearing these types of things, they won’t. They will not do it in the future because you get, ‘Oh he’s lying.’ You know, you get blamed for feeling the way that you feel.”

We heard similar comments from TCU wide receiver Jalen Reagor last week, who spoke on mental health as a problem amongst collegiate athletes and the inability to talk about it being an even larger concern. “I feel like mental wellness is a big thing to me. There’s certain things that we [athletes] have built up that we can’t say because of our platform. Most people don’t understand that we are people outside of just being football players. People are so caught up on what we do on the field, they don’t understand that we have life problems, we have stuff that bothers us, just like the normal person that doesn’t play sports.”

In a culture where suicide rates are rising among young people at an alarming rate, minimizing mental health issues - especially in an area where the need to be bigger, stronger, tougher than the guy across from you runs rampant - isn’t only inconsiderate, it’s downright dangerous. What Harbaugh is effectively saying to his players and their families is “I will help you unless you aren’t helping me, then I’ll call you a liar.”

Jim backtracked, of course, at the end of his diatribe. “I care very deeply about mental health. I’m not saying everybody’s lying about that... Just saying, ‘OK, this is America. You started at this school, you didn’t like it, and for whatever the reason is, you’re freely allowed to transfer to any other school like any other human being would have a right to do.’ That’s really the bottom line.”

But Jim, isn’t that exactly what you’re saying? That kids are lying about their mental health and well-being so that they can transfer and be immediately eligible? That they’ll do anything to play, just like you’ll do anything to win?

“You’re saying it just to say it. ... That’s not something we should be promoting at the college level. Telling the truth matters, especially at a college.”

Telling the truth...

Is that something that many college coaches have been accused of?

Harbaugh wasn’t the only coach to speak out of both sides of his mouth last week, though - newly-minted Jayhawk Les Miles opened with a monologue at his first Big 12 Media Days that would have made any politician proud. While deriding domestic abuse and violence against women on one hand, he backed up the decision to suspend Pooka Williams for one game (against an FCS opponent) on the other.

Williams, you may recall, was charged after being accused of punching and grabbing the throat of an 18-year-old Kansas student, something that he admitted to in text messages and of which there was physical evidence of in the form of bruises. After being separated from the team for seven months, Williams is back with the program and set to serve a one game suspension this fall (against Indiana State), a decision of which Miles said “I did not make this decision, but I stand by it and see it as a right one.” Williams played into the game, speaking about how much his star running back suffered by not being able to be a part of the team, to work out with them, etc. About how “he has taken responsibility. He’s been remorseful. He’s learned from this experience as has our team.”

It rings a little hollow when the next sentence out of his mouth is “we’re thankful to have him back, and, again, no violence against a woman is okay.”

I am all for second chances. No person should be defined by their worst day. But, there should be real consequences for your actions, especially when those actions are of a violent nature against a person who cannot physically defend themselves against you. Is one game, against an opponent you might consider overmatched by even Kansas, enough of a message to send your team?

Before you say “rocks, glass houses, etc” - yes, TCU has had their issues. But, the one thing that I can say proudly about the program that I both support and cover, is that time and time again, when a player has been found guilty of violence against women, they have been removed from the program. Trevone Boykin was sent home for getting in an altercation just days before the Alamo Bowl and has been all but exiled from the program as disturbing allegations about domestic violence have surfaced. KaVontae Turpin was dismissed from the program amid allegations himself, and was not allowed to participate in the Frogs’ Pro Day after failing to meet the requirements set before him. Devonte Fields was kicked out of the program after an incident, despite being named preseason defensive player of the year. These aren’t the only examples, but the track record is clear - step outside the lines of what is expected of you as a member of the TCU Football program, and you won’t be long for being a member of the TCU Football program.

I have always said, you can’t control what the people you’re in charge of do, only how you respond to it.

No program is perfect. But is it worth an extra win or two to belittle a player’s mental health or say you’re anti-violence against women out of one side of your mouth while throwing a non-consequential punishment out of the other?

I don’t think so. And I hope that TCU Football continues to not, either.