Life is not all rainbows and lollipops, which is why I’m a sucker for sports stories that end in a pot of educational gold. Or in this case, Michigan maize.
You don’t have to love Jim Harbaugh to admit it was cool how the coach recently took the Wolverines to Italy on a week-long educational trip that was heavy on outside-the-classroom learning, light on football.
Harbaugh is a lot of things, including goofball gladiator. (Do yourself a favor and watch the video of the Michigan coach impersonating Maximus from “Gladiator” while sticking his head through a Russell Crowe cutout board in Rome. It is both glorious and disturbing.) I maintain, however, there usually is method to Harbaugh’s madness, and regarding the Italy trip the method is to be applauded.
Did the trip also serve as a recruiting tool? Of course. Top that, Ohio State. But mostly Michigan’s travels to Rome, Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo showed how serious Harbaugh is about providing educational opportunities outside of Ann Arbor.
This from Kyle Rowland, the Michigan beat reporter for The (Toledo) Blade who accompanied the team on the trip: “I, like many others, was skeptical of the trip before traveling to Italy. Not necessarily because I thought it was going to be a football trip — it was known early on there would only be three practices — but because it had the visions of a week-long vacation to Rome. Far from it.”
Players provided backpacks filled with shirts, pants and blankets to refugees from war-torn countries; sat 50 yards from Pope Francis while experiencing a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square; toured the Vatican, Colosseum and other tourist sites; and attended an opera.
“It also helped further study abroad opportunities for athletes, a movement Harbaugh has spearheaded,” Rowland wrote me. “He gives players the entire month of May off, which is remarkable in the current age of uber-competitiveness. About two dozen players are studying abroad and another dozen are doing international internships.”
Bravo, Captain Khaki. I say that with no hint of cynicism. It would be disingenuous to point out one school’s attack on education — I’m looking at you, North Carolina — without praising another school for going above and beyond. Michigan went all-in by seeing value in schooling its football players outside the university setting.
But the Wolverines do not have dibs on that pot of educational gold. I found sweet satisfaction in Cleveland using the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft to select a reader of poetry and lover of paleontology. Granted, the Browns selected pass rusher Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M because he buries quarterbacks’ bones, not because he enjoys excavating fossils, but credit the team for not being scared off by Garrett’s non-football interests.
There exists a managerial mindset in the NFL that players are at their most productive when focusing solely on playbooks. Too many outside interests dilutes the demon on the field, they maintain.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who retired at age 26 to pursue writing, explained in a MEL magazine podcast last year how the NFL frowns upon well-rounded draft prospects.
“When I was going through the NFL Combine there was a team that asked me, ‘If you have all these other interests — like reading, dancing or art — what makes you a football player?’ ” Mendenhall said. “There is this idea of what a football player is and what he looks like.”
The Browns pushed back against the athlete-as-animal stereotype by selecting Garrett. Michigan provided an educational experience beyond brick and mortar. Both are richer for it.