Harbaugh, practice film: what sportsmanship is and isn’t

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons @Eric Upchurch


Last weekend, the college football season began as Hawaii and Cal played a game in Sydney, Australia.

This week, Cal is off while Hawaii plays in Ann Arbor, MI against the Wolverines.

For the Wolverines, they’ve had a chance to see Hawaii play a game. Hawaii enters this game with no such luxury and asked Wolverine coach Jim Harbuagh for film of an inner squad scrimmage.

Harbaugh declined.

As a die hard Ohio State fan, I saw that story this morning on an Ohio State sports website. Not surprisingly, Ohio State fans were critical. I thought “well of course he’s not going to give up scrimmage film. Why on earth would he do that?”

As the day progressed, I found virtually no one commenting who agreed with my view.

But then I began to talk about this with friends who weren’t fans of either team and they also seemed to largely think that Harbaugh should turn over film.

People act like it’s an advantage for the Wolverines that they have seen Hawaii play.

Advantages? Hawaii has already had the opportunity to play an entire game! And they also had the opportunity to start practicing earlier because their season started earlier. To think that they should get special access to practice film is Hawaii’s attempt to have their cake and eat it too. 

There are consequences in choices we make. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. This is a case where there are consequence which are both good and bad.

For Hawaii

Positive consequences

  1. have already played a game at live speed which is helpful at the beginning of a season against a team who hasn’t.
  2. Started practice earlier

Negative consequences

  1. By virtue of playing earlier, they’re playing a team who’s seen them play who they haven’t seen play.
  2. Not sure if it counts, but they’re not very good.

I hear people talk about fairness. The fairness is in the fact that they play a sport where teams make their own non-conference schedules. No one made Hawaii schedule a game a week early.

Hawaii also could have followed Cal’s lead and scheduled a bye week for the following week, but decided not to. Not U of M’s fault, not their problem. If a team loses their quarterback to an injury, the opponent doesn’t bench their quarterback as a courtesy!

I’ve heard people say the Wolverines should give them film as a sign of good sportsmanship.

Seriously?! Sportsmanship is not about doing absolutely everything you can to eliminate any legitimate advantage you might ever have. Because it’s never going to be exactly even. It’s not even in terms of talent of players, quality of coaches. The Wolverines are home, playing at noon. Hawaii has to make another long trip and will be playing at…some ridiculous hour, Hawaii time.

Against all of those factors, people seem to be sympathetic to Hawaii. Because they’re bad, why not help them out.

Because that’s not Harbaugh’s job! He’s not there to do whatever he can to help the competition. The fact that Hawaii is bad is irrelevant. If they were playing Alabama or Clemson, and refused to give tapes (because those programs are good), would it be justified? A coach isn’t in a position to think “well we’ll probably win anyway so what difference does it make.”

I heard one commenter say that it’s a common courtesy for football teams to share game and practice tape. No. It’s not. Game tape, yes. But teams do not share practice film. That’s why practices are closed! Because they don’t want other teams to know what they’re doing.

In a scrimmage situation, the Wolverines are potentially (and quite likely) including plays that they’re adding specifically for the game with Hawaii this weekend. To think that they would turn that over is absurd.

Other people want to take shots at the Wolverines. How they’re scared of Hawaii. Surely that’s not the reason. They’re much, much better. Even Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich wanted to talk trash when he said, “I guess they’re trying to hide their quarterback for a reason.”

It’s not because they’re afraid. But if you have a chance to go into a game with a quarterback the other team hasn’t seen, what good reason is there to willingly give that up?

What else does Hawaii want? The Wolverine playbook? Maybe the offensive gameplan? Maybe 5-6 players can just dress for Hawaii instead.

I’ve also heard people who don’t like Harbaugh act like any other coach would give up practice film, and that it’s just Harbaugh’s personality. Again I disagree. I don’t think any coach in his right mind would give up practice film.

I know it’s just a football game.

Of course we should do the right thing. But is this really the right thing? To artificially boost a competitor who made a free choice to play an early game. I was at Target a few weeks ago and their card readers weren’t working. So does that mean the Walmart across the street should have also closed to be fair?

Part of sports, competition, and life is overcoming obstacles and adversity.

In August of 2014, Toledo, Ohio had to shut off the town’s water supply when toxins were found in the water supply. This was just as fall camp was starting for the University of Toledo football team and the Rockets found themselves without water.

So they turned to their rivals (and my alma mater), Bowling Green for water to keep the players hydrated and Bowling Green agreed. At the time, BG’s Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine, Alfred Castillo said, “This is a crisis situation and it’s about making sure the kids have water…it’s not about the rivalry right now.” 

Should Bowling Green have helped their rivals?


What’s the difference? In the Bowling Green case, they were demonstrating sportsmanship because they were looking out for the livelihood of their rivals. For the Wolverines, giving up the tapes, would be artificially boosting your opponent and giving them information about your program and planning that they don’t have a right to know.

I would argue the fact that Hawaii asked for practice tapes, such an outlandish request, is bordering on poor sportsmanship on their part. To suggest that they could reasonable expect to have those.

If you’re in a position to help someone because it’s helping their livelihood, that’s a good thing. But you shouldn’t help someone by giving them a better chance to beat you!


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