Jim Harbaugh is the first person to admit he's obsessed with football. Everything else is secondary. This is a man who traveled to Paris with his wife, went to a Mexican restaurant that appears to be decent but by no means world-renowned, and declared it the best restaurant while also boiling down his personality into a damn near perfect tweet.
I"m not a food critic, merely a blunt instrument who only knows football. In my opinion this restaurant is the Best! pic.twitter.com/oIdvpemrIn
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 15, 2015
Harbaugh is a blunt instrument. He doesn't get sick. He doesn't take holidays. He's a jackhammer. We know this.
Harbaugh also has strong ties to the military. One of his oldest, closest friends is retired Marine colonel Jim Minick, who now serves at Michigan's director of football operations. He has a well-documented history of bringing in military officers to speak to his teams. He stops by Omaha Beach while on vacation. He welcomes servicemen into his office and genuinely looks more excited to take a photo with them than vice versa.
Which brings us to yesterday. Harbaugh emerged from the fall camp submarine—his term; he's also referred to it as a "bunker"—to address the media for the first game-week press conference of the season. Harbaugh is well-known for his unpredictable, off-the-cuff answers in pressers (not to mention on Twitter). We have a "jim harbaugh says things he probably shouldn't" tag, and the proprietor of this site has described him as "being himself at maximum volume at all times" on multiple occasions.
The odds that Harbaugh had the time or inclination to seriously ponder Colin Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem before the press conference are exceedingly low. This is a football coach known for being way more football-obsessed than even the average football-obsessed football coach. He's briefly emerging from three weeks of fall camp and its four-hour practices and endless film study to talk about the Hawaii game. He's probably aware of the basic details of Kaepernick's protest, but that's not anywhere close to his primary focus. He's thinking about his team, preparing for Hawaii, and not letting on anything about the ongoing quarterback competition.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
Fifteen minutes into a twenty-minute presser, Harbaugh is asked about Kaepernick. This is how our press conference correspondent, Adam Schnepp, transcribed the exchange:
As someone who knows Colin Kaepernick, what do you think about his stance to sit during the Anthem, and do you think it will cost him his job with the 49ers?
“I acknowledge his right to do that, but…I don’t respect the…the motivation or the…or the action.”
He pauses three times in that one sentence, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the presser. The video shows a man who is searching for the right words and isn't quite sure he found them:
Harbaugh sounds off on Colin Kaepernick's protest... pic.twitter.com/5IwcD5bw6a
— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) August 29, 2016
Harbaugh went off-the-cuff, which is his nature. He didn't choose his words carefully.
Colin Kaepernick, on the other hand, has spent a great deal of time thinking about his motivation and his action. After the media picked up on his protest, he spent 18 minutes discussing in detail why he won't stand for the national anthem. Before that, he addressed the 49ers in a players-only meeting, one that teammates described as both "productive and informative." At least one player whose initial reaction mirrored Harbaugh's emerged from the meeting with a different mindset:
“To be honest with you, I took offense to it,” 49ers center Daniel Kilgore said upon learning Kaepernick opted not to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner out of protest for what he sees as injustice for minorities in the United States.
“But after Kap stating his case today, and seeing where he was coming from, I do stand with Kap when he says, ‘Enough is enough against crime and the violence, discrimination and racism.’
“I believe enough is enough. I can see where people would think it’s bad with the national anthem and the military. For me, I’m going to stand there every time. I’m going to think about and honor those who are fighting and those who have fought, my family members, my friends. If Kap decides not to, that’s his decision.”
While Kilgore may not be joining Kaepernick in protest, he acknowledges and understands the impetus behind it, and that is a critical distinction.
Harbaugh, unlike Kilgore, didn't talk to Kaepernick this week. My assumption, based on Harbaugh's reaction and that of many others, as well as his background, is that he viewed Kaepernick's protest as a disrespectful act to the military, to which the flag and the anthem are inextricably linked; just look at Michigan's upcoming military appreciation festivities for the UCF game, which will feature "two large American field flags [that] will be held by over 150 veterans and service members" during the anthem among several other military tributes. I doubt he'd considered Kaepernick's pointed views on police violence, not to mention his direct experience with it:
-Q: Have you ever been pulled over unjustly or had a bad experience in that regard?
-KAEPERNICK: Yes. Multiple times.
I mean, I’ve had times where one of my roommates was moving out of a house in college and because we were the only black people in that neighborhood, the cops got called and all of us had guns drawn on us. I mean, came in the house without knocking, guns drawn, on one of my teammates and roommates.
So I have experienced this. People close to me have experienced this. This isn’t something that’s a one-off case here, a one-off case there.
When Harbaugh initially said he didn't respect Kaepernick's "motivation," he unwittingly invalidated the very real issues that Kaepernick is addressing with his act of protest. It was one of the worst possible word choices. Immediately after the press conference ended, he corrected that error:
I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin's motivation. It's his method of action that I take exception to
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) August 29, 2016
If Harbaugh had said that initially, he wouldn't be in the midst of a media firestorm, or at least not one that's nearly this heated. While he still takes exception to Kaepernick's action, that's a position that doesn't invalidate years, decades, centuries of America's history, as well as the present state of relations between police and minorities in many parts of this country.
You may still disagree with Harbaugh. Kaepernick's protest is nonviolent, even nonintrusive—he sat for the anthem in the first preseason game, too, and nobody noticed—and when the media picked up on it, it sparked a nation-wide conversation that's led to some remarkable revelations. I majored in history; without Kaepernick's protest, I wouldn't be aware of the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner. That appears to be the case with one of Harbaugh's star players, Jourdan Lewis, as well. If the goal of protest—a deeply American act dating back to the very genesis of this country—is to raise awareness of issues and drive change, Kaepernick hit the mark; again, look at the reaction from his teammates after the players-only meeting.
You may still disagree with Kaepernick, too. The national anthem and the flag are symbols that, for many of us, stand for freedom, equality, and the sacrifices so many have made to uphold those values. Kaepernick's freedom of expression extends to his critics, and they have a valid point, too: many, many people have died fighting for the country and values that flag symbolizes, and Kaepernick's actions can be interpreted as disrespect of that country and those values in that context. I can't know for sure, but it's quite possible Harbaugh feels that way.
This is all well and good as long as there's an acknowledgment that this discussion has valid opinions on both sides. Harbaugh's initial statement didn't leave room for that. His clarification did.
In an ideal world, Harbaugh would've been prepared to address the issue—the question wasn't hard to see coming—and better express his true feelings on the matter, or acknowledge that he wasn't ready to address it and put forth a no comment. His brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, had thought through his answer enough to quote Voltaire when asked about Kaepernick:
"Voltaire so eloquently stated, 'I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it,'" John Harbaugh said. "That's a principle that our country is founded on. I don't think you cannot deny someone the right to speak out or mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion."
Jim Harbaugh, however, is a blunt instrument. He answered the question. By his own admission, he missed the mark.
I hate when people tell sports figures to stick to sports. These are people with experiences and opinions that are often quite valuable, and they have a larger platform than most. Context matters, though. Jim Harbaugh is not a food critic. He is not a politician. He is not a social commentator. He is a football coach. We shouldn't be surprised that he sounded like one when asked to address a complicated, nuanced, and controversial social issue in between questions about the depth chart and this season's schedule.