It’s that time of year where reporters and other media members get to ask questions to college football coaches that often lead to these meathead leaders of the gridiron showing their ass on topics they’re clearly not too well-versed on. The most recent edition of this annual tradition features University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tackling the subject of mental health struggles in athletes.
To be clear, Harbaugh didn’t broach this subject entirely on his own. It came up during an interview with ESPNU Big Ten Radio with regards to an athlete’s right to immediate eligibility if they transfer schools for depression, or other mental health-related reasons. Harbaugh decided to approach things from the “slippery slope” perspective.
And the other piece that bothers me about it is the youngster that says, ‘This is a mental health issue. I’m suffering from depression.’ Or that’s a reason to get eligible. And once that’s known: ‘Hey, say this or say that’ to get eligible. The problem I see in that is you’re going to have guys that are, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m depressed.’
Say what they’ve got to say. But down the road I don’t see that helping them if it’s not a legitimate thing. But nobody would know. But what are you going to say? Ten years down the road - ‘I just had to say what I had to say?’ And I think you’re putting them in a position that’s unfair, not right. And, as you said, you’re saying it just to say it. And that’s not truthful. That’s not necessarily truthful. It’s not something we should be promoting at the college level. Telling the truth matters. Especially at a college. You can’t have experiments that aren’t truthful. You can’t lie about equations - shouldn’t be lying in football. That’s a message that we should be teaching.
Harbaugh added that he cares “very deeply about mental health,” and asked listeners not to write him any letters.
Like most college coaches, Harbaugh is no stranger to the process of players transferring in general, but there’s a good chance that the reason he brought up a mental health-related transfer is because of an experience involving someone who used to play for him.
Former Michigan tackle James Hudson transferred out of the program to the University of Cincinnati just before bowl season started in December 2018. The Bearcats filed a waiver for immediate eligibility, likely citing a rule that allows athletes to play the same season they transfer if it’s for mental health reasons. But the NCAA rejected that waiver back in May. In a Notes app screenshot posted on Twitter, Hudson wrote that the reason for this denial was because he never spoke about his mental wellbeing during his time in Michigan.
Had Harbaugh’s comments been dropped in a vacuum, one could argue that the coach was just simply calling out a system that incentivizes the kind of behavior he’s warning against, and noting that the real villain is the rule that makes players sit out a season after transferring. Hell, someone could take that even further to say that the process screws over athletes that are actually battling mental health concerns, as it requires players to undergo the trouble of having to explain to the ghouls that make up NCAA committees that the anxiety or depression they suffer is real—Hudson’s situation basically proves this point. It would fall in line with the coach’s relatively-progressive belief system that includes thinking the NCAA should ditch most transfer restrictions entirely, and allow athletes to move programs once with immediate eligibility. It was a point he emphasized when he posted a response to the criticism he’s received.
That being said, it’s the fact that there’s a direct connection to a real-life example that makes Harbaugh’s words look much worse than they actually are—which are still pretty insensitive at best. It feels like a veiled excuse to talk about getting rid of a rule that is currently inconveniencing him, rather than talking legitimate problems affecting college athletes. There’s also the fact that the way he speaks about the mental health waiver creates this fantasy world where the stigma against mental health concerns have vanished, and anyone who claims to have depression is automatically believed, when that scenario is not in tune with reality. Is the NCAA model broken enough to allow exploitation to happen? Yes, but that doesn’t mean a rule that could actually be a big help to the wellbeing of collegiate athletes is bad because it takes place in that broken system.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the fact that Harbaugh is so close to being miles ahead of his peers (*cough* Saban *cough*) when it comes to this subject. It’s just a shame that he had to go ahead and choke that lead at the last second with a poorly-timed decision.