Back in April, Jim Harbaugh invited Colin Kaepernick to serve as an “honorary captain” for the University of Michigan spring football game.
Kaepernick addressed the Wolverines team, flipped the pregame coin and then at halftime, right in the middle of Michigan Stadium, conducted a rare public passing workout in an effort to catch the eye of NFL team scouts.
Harbaugh’s actions were well-received by a certain segment of the public and not well-received by a different segment of the public.
Harbaugh didn’t care.
This week, Jim Harbaugh spoke at an anti-abortion fundraiser in Plymouth, Michigan, called “Plymouth Right to Life” ahead of what is likely to be a heated state ballot campaign concerning the issue this fall.
Harbaugh’s action was well-received by a certain segment of the public and not well-received by a different segment of the public.
Harbaugh didn’t care.
Harbaugh doesn’t care about much, of course. This is a multi-millionaire former NFL star who proudly as a coach wore nothing but Walmart khakis for years, even after it became a running stroke and his wife tried to throw out his collection.
It’s complicated. He’s contradictory. It’s a work in progress. He believes passionately about things and then sometimes changes his tone, if not his mind.
He is, most likely, a lot more representative of most Americans than whatever part of the political spectrum is shouting for him to just shut up and coach on any given day.
To be clear, Harbaugh deserves almost any response he gets for wading into various issues. He is free to express his opinion and in turn everyone is free to react to that opinion. Sometimes it can win you new supporters. Sometimes you lose them. That’s the deal. For every action there is a reaction.
Credit Harbaugh for this, however. He chooses to stand up and speak up on what he finds important. He isn’t scared. He isn’t quiet. And he isn’t part of any set political team. He will not walk in lockstep with anyone. He doesn’t mind angering those who previously praised him or pleasing those who previously attacked him.
“What kind of person are you if you don’t fight tooth and nail for what you stand for?” Harbaugh said this week. “You get to change hearts by fighting for what you stand for.”
Harbaugh is all over the map. Consider his relationship with Kaepernick, whom he coached to a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh was coaching Michigan in 2016, when Kaepernick began sitting and then taking a knee during the pregame national anthem to protest inequality. Harbaugh initially said he “didn’t respect” the protest and noted “his method of action [is what] I take exception to.
Despite his vocal opposition to the kneeling, he continued to privately and publicly support his old player and through the years openly pushed for NFL teams to sign him. He even reportedly wanted to one day hire Kaepernick as a quarterbacks coach. And Kaepernick apparently holds no ill feelings.
“Phenomenal person,” Kaepernick told Detroit’s WXYZ during the spring game. “Phenomenal man.”
And Kaepernick understood the significance of the spring game opportunity, not to mention his old coach’s willingness to endure criticism for it.
“It shows who Coach Harbaugh is,” Kaepernick said. “He does this for me. He’s someone who is gonna fight for you. His relationship with you goes beyond just football. He loves you as a person.
The nuanced Kaepernick support is just part of it.
He has praised Donald Trump — “the thing I like about Donald Trump is he’s not afraid to fight the establishment.”
He has ripped Donald Trump — for everything from calling on Kaepernick to be fired after kneeling (“ridiculous … he should check the Constitution”) to a possible defunding of a federal legal aid program that helps poor defendants.
He attended a Hillary Clinton rally in Ann Arbor during the 2016 campaign. He was a guest of President Obama for a State of the Union address. He once worked with Michelle Obama on an education initiative.
As a coach for the 49ers, he enthusiastically said that gay players were welcome on the team, which was somewhat controversial at the time. Before that, at Stanford, he said he aspired to set up a safe culture for gay athletes to come out and thrive.
He took his Wolverine team to the Vatican, enjoyed an audience with the Pope and publicly participated in a non-denominational “Pray it Forward” campaign.
In the summer of 2020, he marched in a protest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. He walked alongside many of his players and coaches, some of whom carried “Black Lives Matter” signs.
Was this courageous or controversial? Maybe it shouldn’t be, but Harbaugh’s presence — as a high-profile, white college football coach — was significant enough that no less than Barack Obama publicly praised him.
“That’s not something that was happening five to six years ago,” Obama said at the time. “Although, I know [Jim]. And he’s been on the right side of this issue for quite some time.”
All of the above were very popular with some people and very unpopular with others.
And then vice versa.
This is Harbaugh and this is also a huge swath of America. Polling consistently shows there are abortion-rights Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats, no matter what cable news, social media or profiting political hacks want you to believe.
There is a segment of Americans who like this, but not that, who support this, but not that, who, more than anything, reject the concept that they are allowed to think only one way on every single issue or be condemned.
In 2019, Harbaugh was ripped by some on social media for congratulating Michigan donor and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for winning a football honor. The problem? Ross had just held a fundraiser for Trump.
“Zealots,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got zealots on all sides of the aisle these days.”
You can agree with Harbaugh on everything, nothing or some of the things, but you have to acknowledge that he’s willing to take heat from everyone.
Today, he’s getting praised and bashed. Tomorrow he’ll be getting bashed and praised.
The fans and critics will switch sides.
Harbaugh will be Harbaugh; unabashed as ever.