Loyalty to Colin Kaepernick shows what really matters to Jim Harbaugh
You can’t even type the name without an army of keyboard warriors and trolls getting up in arms. And to actually invite the guy somewhere?
Whew. Good luck with that.
Jim Harbaugh doesn’t care what those people think. Indeed, there are many times where one gets the impression Harbaugh doesn’t care what anybody thinks.
That means he has the right thickness of skin for what he is doing this weekend.
Kaepernick will be an honorary captain for the Wolverines in Saturday’s spring game. But that’s not all.
At halftime, Kaepernick will put on a workout for NFL scouts who are expected to be in attendance getting an early look at potential 2023 draftees. He’ll be throwing to what’s being described as a mix of retired and free-agent wide receivers.
Ann Arbor prides itself as a pretty open-minded place, but not every Michigan fan is from Ann Arbor. Far from it. There will no doubt be many feathers ruffled by the sight of Kaepernick with a Michigan jersey, and probably more than a few season tickets cancelled.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) March 30, 2022
Kaepernick’s halftime exhibition is likely to draw some boo-birds, too. This will be his first time performing in front of a large audience since his most recent NFL season in 2016, when his decision to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest created a national firestorm.
Even though 5 years have elapsed since then, some are undoubtedly relishing the opportunity to let him know what they think.
Whether those who cancel their tickets number in single digits, dozens or make it up to quadruple-figures is of little concern to Harbaugh. He’s making the bet that Michigan football is strong enough to get by without those people. And unless all of them are mega-donors, he’s right.
For Harbaugh, this is a loyalty test. And it’s going to resonate pretty loudly for potential Michigan recruits.
Play for me, and I’m always going to stick my neck out for you.
Why Kaepernick is at Michigan
This is not the first time Harbaugh has taken a chance on Colin Kaepernick.
In 2011, Harbaugh coached the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game with Alex Smith as his quarterback.
A year later, the Niners were contenders again. However, Smith suffered a concussion during a Week 10 game against the Rams. Kaepernick, then a 2nd-year backup, would have to start the next week against Chicago.
The Bears still had a formidable defense, finishing 3rd in the league in points allowed. Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and a pair of touchdowns for a 32-7 Monday Night rout.
Even when Smith was well enough to return, Harbaugh stuck with the hot hand over the veteran. The 49ers rode that hot hand all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to brother John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.
And that is a large reason why Kaepernick, a University of Nevada graduate, is being named an honorary Wolverine this weekend.
The other is that Harbaugh believes Kaepernick has something to offer his team. Kaepernick has been embedded with the program all week, and spoke to the Wolverines Wednesday night.
Some will no doubt find his message very controversial.
“Grind for the life you want,” Michigan defensive tackle Kris Jenkins recounted Kaepernick saying. “Work hard. Work hard to achieve. The days are going to be tough; you’re going to work your butt off and you’ve got to push through. You’ve got to take that extra inch when everybody else is relaxing.”
Er, wait. That’s objectively good advice for any football player. The kind of advice that maybe helps a team beat Ohio State twice in a row. A message you’d expect every Michigan fan to get behind.
But because of the messenger, some won’t be listening. Only seething.
Reward outweighs risk for Harbaugh
It’s extremely unlikely Harbaugh did any sort of risk/reward calculation before inviting Kaepernick to Michigan. That’s not how he rolls. If it was, he wouldn’t have interviewed for the Vikings job on National Signing Day.
But if he were to do so, he’d probably find the reward of having Kaepernick visit outweighs the flood of angry responses it is triggering.
Save Nevada coach Ken Wilson, no one in the FBS but Harbaugh could pull this off. The fan and booster uproar would overwhelm the reward.
But for Harbaugh, this checks a lot of boxes.
As mentioned before, loyalty is one of them. Harbaugh’s own loyalty to Michigan was questioned when he openly flirted with the NFL this offseason. He has since insisted that will never happen again. And with this move, he proves that he sticks by his guys no matter what the outside world thinks.
Like any political figure, Kaepernick has ardent acolytes to counter his detractors. And they tend to be younger. Say, the age to one day play football for the Wolverines.
For many — especially teenagers who might be growing up in Detroit or Flint or Saginaw or, well, anywhere — Kaepernick is a profile in courage. For a khaki-loving square like Harbaugh to prove he’s down with Kap’s message probably breaks down preconceived notions for potential recruits.
“This Harbaugh guy is alright.”
That’s not to say this is Harbaugh’s motivator for doing this. It’s merely a potential benefit. Doing right by Kaepernick seems to be his primary goal. One now wonders if Kaepernick would be in camp with the Vikings had Harbaugh had been offered that job. It sure seems likely.
Of course, a segment of Michigan fans is likely wishing that scenario played out at the moment. But we’ll see how angry they stay if Harbaugh’s relationship with Kaepernick pays dividends for the Wolverines in the long run.