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JIM HARBAUGH RECEIVES A SPEEDING TICKET FOR A FRAUD’S CRIMINAL HEIST
The Big Ten commissioner, who allowed the Houston Astros to cheat against a “piece of metal,” lets a coach off an immoral hook by treating college football’s National Championship Trophy like trinkets
Here was a chance for a new commissioner, from the spheres of Major League Baseball and television, to lay down an adhesive of integrity in collegiate sports. Jim Harbaugh knows every expenditure and dropped paper clip in his program and realized the exact crevice of poop he received from Connor Stalions, of whom he paid $55,000 a year. They got away with what he could in his sign-stealing bounty in other stadiums, called “sickening” and “disgusting” and “repulsive” by his Big Ten colleagues.
And when Harbaugh finally was nailed, here was an opportunity for Tony Petitti — Harvard Law School, years at a New York legal firm, in charge of airing Super Bowls at CBS where Janet Jackson had her wardrobe malfunction, overseeing programming at MLB Network, working as Chief Operating Officer under Rob Manfred at the league office — to bring about fair play. The Big Ten is about to become America’s biggest college conference next year. It needs an ass-kicking, as does a football community that allows NIL and transfer portals, regardless of the triviality spewed the other day by President Biden.
Instead, all Petitti did was take an incontrovertible trail of cheating syndication and turn it into a minor violation. Harbaugh won’t be allowed to coach his Michigan Wolverines for the final three games of this regular season, but he can continue running his team during the week — hell, more suspicious game plans and more stashing if he wishes — and implement what he desires later this month against Ohio State. Then, if his team is among the last four in the College Football Playoff, he can keep coaching them on the sideline in the postseason.
There isn’t a football man on Earth who thinks he must be on a sideline during a game. His work is long done. All he needs is an assistant, pick a coordinator, to perform his duties. Saturday at No. 10 Penn State, in a White Out wave of 110,000 Harbaugh-obsessed fans, will be curious because Petitti didn’t make his public announcement until Friday afternoon, when the Wolverines were landing in central Pennsylvania. But make no mistake: Michigan is an offensive powerhouse when the Nittany Lions can be toppled. Maryland is a 5-4 pushover on the road, losers of four straight games. And Ohio State, which has lost two straight games, must come to Ann Arbor, where the fans will be angrier and zanier than ever.
Chances are, Harbaugh will be 12-0 and seeded No. 1 for the CFP. And that’s all Petitti has, ladies and gentlemen of the national punishment jury. When he and Manfred penalized the Houston Astros for using electronic sign-stealing in 2017, they did not suspend a player and didn’t reprimand owner Jim Crane. They allowed the team to fire general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch while the Boston Red Sox, who hired scheme perpetrator Alex Cora, fired him and rehired him less than a year later as the Detroit Tigers hired Hinch. In one of Manfred’s claims of shame, he made the mistake of referring to the Commissioner’s Trophy as “a piece of metal.”
Apparently, in Petitti’s world, the handcrafted gold brackets of the National Championship Trophy are just bunches of trinkets in his sportsmanship policy.
Never mind that he could have cited NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168: “An institution's head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.” Rather, Petitti protected Harbaugh by making clear in his report that he wasn’t disciplining him. It’s commonplace in sports on that level, playing for a championship in America’s predominant game, that a head coach with a $36.7 million contract is aware of everything happening in his program, including gross wrongdoing. Not in the words of the commissioner, who wrote, “This is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh. It is a sanction against the University that, under the extraordinary circumstance presented by this offensive conduct, best fits the violation.”
So the coach is in charge … but he isn’t in charge at all? Harbaugh knew about Stalions, approved his salary and used his bad deeds, and yet, Petitti blamed Michigan for the raw deal — "conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.”
Furthermore, Harbaugh has a supporter in Michigan president Santa Ono, who evidently doesn’t care much about honesty lessons among his students and is using a court system so his coach might appear on the Penn State sideline. In saying a court order would prevent “this disciplinary action from taking effect,” Ono said in a statement, “Like all members of the Big Ten Conference, we are entitled to a fair, deliberate, and thoughtful process to determine the full set of facts before a judgment is rendered. Today's action by Commissioner Tony Petitti disregards the Conference's own handbook, violates basic tenets of due process, and sets an untenable precedent of assessing penalties before an investigation has been completed. We are dismayed at the Commissioner's rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation — one in which we are fully cooperating.”
Ever meet anyone associated with the University of Michigan? They rise high in life, in personal status-seeking, but they choose not to stick by rules. Harbaugh’s mentor is his former coach, Bo Schembechler, whose hand-picked team doctor, Robert Anderson, was accused by players of sexual assault. Said Harbaugh of cheating: “You always want to be above reproach, especially when you're good, because you don't want people to come back and say, ‘They're winning because they're cheating.’ That's always going to be a knee-jerk reaction in my experience, ever since I was a little kid. We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. Because if you don't, if you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler. And Bo Schembechler is about next to the word of God as you can get in my mind. It's not the word of God, but it's close.” Schembechler was not God. He had issues. So did his son, who resigned from the program earlier this year because of social media activity.
In the end, as we always do in sports, Harbaugh likely will play for a national title even as his principles are shot down in 2023. He missed the first three games with a self-crafted suspension for recruiting violations, down from four — per the NCAA. Now he’ll miss the last three. Six of a dozen games, he’s gone. Nice work, God. Surely, Petitti knows he’s also protecting schools whose coaches and athletic directors are spewing about Michigan. If the Wolverines qualify for the CFP, the Big Ten receives $6 million. If Michigan and Ohio State qualify, still possible, keep doing the math.
Yet Harbaugh continues to deny any knowledge of off-campus trickery. He said: “I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.” Never mind the dirty work of Stalions, the Marine Corps captain and Naval Academy graduate, who resigned from his position last week. So he bought tickets for games at 12 of the 13 other Big Ten stadiums and at possible CFP foes. No one from Michigan, from the coach to the president to the athletic director, has explained.
Sometimes in sports, a villain is better off cheating to see if he gets caught. Jim Harbaugh was ravaged. He’ll miss 180 minutes of sideline work and will see you on New Year’s Day. Worth it?
He thinks so.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.