Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking

Don't Say Cheese: Harbaugh Photo Ops

Star power: the value and cost

Posted Jun 07, 2016

Image created in photoshop by Dr. Gordon from personal photographs and Google Freestock
Source: Image created in photoshop by Dr. Gordon from personal photographs and Google Freestock

According to social media, Jim Harbaugh was signing autographs at his satellite camp in Florida, when a compliance officer informed him that the NCAA had just made a rule forbidding him to sign autographs or pose for pictures with potential recruits and their families during the satellite camps –“The Jim Harbaugh rule.” Hmmm – curious – the NCAA represents over a thousand colleges and Universities, 99 voting conferences, and 39 affiliate groups. So, as controversial as Jim Harbaugh is, do they really have the time, resources, and need to write special rules for him because of satellite camps?      

Yes and no. Not since the Russians launched Sputnik has the word satellite alarmed so many people. Schembechler Hall says compliance did tell Harbaugh that he couldn’t pose for pictures and sign autographs with recruits and their families during the satellite camps, when he was in Florida.  It wasn't an issue the prior week in Indianapolis - curious.   However, even if the NCAA created this rule specifically to target Harbaugh, the rule applies to every NCAA football coaching staff. 

Okay, still, it seems like a silly rule.  An anonymous source that formerly served in various key capacities at the NCAA, offered some insight.

“Likely, the logic is that camps are not supposed to be used to create a recruiting contact outside of the approved recruiting period (which is rather naive as camps have been recruiting tools for years!).  However, now that we are living in a world of "satellite camps" - the NCAA is likely trying to control coaches from flying around the country from camp to camp and blatantly turning them into recruiting trips.

Very fine lines... in my opinion, the NCAA is trying to control the uncontrollable.

However, if they don't try to put some guardrails around this – you will find coaches making personal appearances at camps all around the country and using them as a way to have direct recruiting contacts with prospects.

Shutterstock Purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon altered in Photoshop by Dr. Gordon
Source: Shutterstock Purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon altered in Photoshop by Dr. Gordon

Stevie Wonder can see that Jim Harbaugh is fiercely committed to his recruiting goals as Michigan’s Head Football Coach.  To that end Harbaugh has shown a willingness to do whatever is necessary – within the NCAA guidelines. He has also found loopholes in NCAA guidelines large enough to land the Michigan jet in and hold a satellite camp.  This has given the SEC fits. USA Today calls it “thinking outside of the box.” Regrettably, the box and those who just realized they were in a box, like Nick Saban, are less complimentary. 

Thus, the eyes of the NCAA and competitive coaches are applying a harsher scrutiny to Harbaugh’s next moves because he has successfully used loopholes in NCAA policy to advance his agenda and increase his job performance. He doesn’t shrink in the face of extra scrutiny because it means doing his job better – and he’s all about that. He’s playing by the rules – as opposed to being played by the rules, which resonates  with Americans, casting  him as the underdog. The brain naturally roots for the underdog.1 

Harbaugh also feels there is a prejudice against football as a sport.  He intimates that it is class and race driven, comparing the lack of restrictions on lacrosse compared to football.  Lacrosse (according to Harbaugh) is an upper middle class white kid sport.  He recently accused the NCAA of making up the rules as they go along where football is concerned.   The satellite camps clearly benefit athletes, so it is very curious why the NCAA puts energy into trying to prevent them or obstruct them with pedantic rules -- considering the NCAA's mission statement.  

This brings me to the elephant in the room – and not the Crimson Tide Mascot.

Jim Harbaugh has star power – and Nick Saban and other NCAA coaches simply cannot compete with Harbaugh on that level. So obviously, the NCAA is trying to ensure he doesn’t exploit it. Perhaps this is the reason Michigan is not allowed to advertise their camps. Still, that’s just another example of the NCAA trying to control passenger boarding on a train that has already left the station. Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer and David Shaw are good football coaches – but they do not have Harbaugh star power, and never will.

 free usage
Source: Google Images: free usage

Ironically, one of the reasons the Michigan faithful love Harbaugh so intensely is because he’s the kind of guy that wouldn’t exploit his celebrity status. Then again, one could argue, he doesn’t have to because it naturally exploits itself.  It’s that rare “Bad Boy/Good Guy/Father-Figure” thing he has going on – he punches people out, has sideline rants, hugs toddlers and build houses for people in 3rd world countries.  That and he’s winning football games and recruiting battles.

I believe America (or at least the Wolverine Nation) loves Jim Harbaugh because he is an approachable hero, in a time and place where heroes are very scarce and desperately needed.  Thus, America’s hunger for something genuine and thirst for something to believe in is the real story here – not photo ops and autographs with Jim Harbaugh being closely monitored.  Remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

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1.     Vandello, J.A., N.P. Goldschmied, and D.A. Richards, The appeal of the underdog. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 2007. 33(12): p. 1603-16.