Harbaugh: 'If you cheat to win, then you've already lost'
Nothing levels a football coach’s credibility quite like the high moral road. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
The hook was nicely baited, just the way Jim Harbaugh likes it. The issue was the Seattle Seahawks and their penchant for Chemical Pez, and Harbaugh’s inner scamp had been hoping someone in the media would do what someone in the media can be relied upon to do.
The problem, though, is that nobody’s house is truly clean in the NFL, and in search of a soundbite that will chafe Pete Carroll, one of his favorite pastimes, Harbaugh rolled the dice in a dark alley.
“Is it a concern? I've definitely noticed it," Harbaugh said of the Seahawks' problems. “You don't know what it is. I mean, even when people say what it is, you don't know that's what it is. It's this thrown out or it's that. But that's usually the agents or the players themselves saying, for example, Adderall. The NFL doesn't release what it actually is. You have no idea. You're taking somebody at their word and I'm not sure you can take them at their word, understanding the circumstances.”
And then, feeling he hadn’t gotten on a high enough horse, he continued.
“It has no place in an athlete's body,” Harbaugh said. “Play by the rules and 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 from people I've found in my experience every since I was a little kid. So we want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. Because if you cheat to win, you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler . . . That's a constant theme.”
Deftly played, that. He takes a swipe at Carroll, who he now recognizes is the media’s choice as his arch-nemesis, even though the correct answer is obviously his brother John. He gets to look like the morally superior person. And he wins back some of his once-lost Michigan constituency by invoking the sainted name of Bo. Victory lap. All has been achieved in barely 200 words. A good day’s work during a mandatory minicamp, when there actually is nothing of true substance to say.
But Harbaugh being Harbaugh, he threatened to overplay his hand. Nothing levels a football coach’s credibility quite like the high moral road. Football is a cruel game, played by cruel men doing cruel things – be necessity and otherwise. There are few more cynical businesses in America, now that loan-sharking has fallen out of favor, and there is almost no coach above the high school level who can stand comfortably on such a rickety pedestal.
In short, “if you cheat to win, you’ve already lost” and “we want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules” make better sound bites than reality. Because this is the NFL, and the NFL isn’t about rules but how to skirt them. It isn’t about chemical purity but how to beat the tests and testers. It is a game of, by and for cynics, and every football fan knows and accepts that as part of the cost of doing the work.
They all want it that way, because they don’t know another way to get what they want without disadvantage. You accept that, or you watch chess.
In short, Harbaugh took the misfortune of the man we have all decided is his bête noire and turned it into an advertisement for himself and his team – which is all well and good until a 49er gets caught riding the needle.
And while we all enjoy the notion of Harbaugh and Carroll at each other’s windpipes, a la Schembechler and Woody Hayes, a defter Harbaugh would have had a different answer, one that doesn’t make him look sanctimonious without the goods, or put him in potential jeopardy down the road.
“So coach, what about the Seahawks and all their suspensions?”
“Yeah. I saw those. Sucks for them.” Cue half-maniacal smile. Move on to a question about A.J. Jenkins’ day at camp. Game, and set.
Not match, though. This will never end. Harbaugh and Carroll are in too deep to ever stop wanting to dig each other for the nation’s entertainment.