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Jim Harbaugh and the Perils of Public Ego

The sporting world can be mind-boggling at times. Our era of constant updates, media sessions, and invasion of personal space creates in-depth profiles of athletes like we’ve never seen before. Couple that with the media’s demand for rash judgments, quick sensationalist stories, and a need for validation, and a culture is created where athletes and coaches can be slandered – not by facts or due process – but in the name of a quick story and public opinion. Journalism has operated in two speeds throughout history: “slow and steady wins the race,” and “the early bird catches the worm.” We are currently living in the ‘Worm-Era’ of journalism. How many times has a story broken with a “juicy” headline only to have the narrative change (often multiple times) as new facts arise? The rise of Twitter and its ‘retweet’ feature has helped spread misinformation and judgmental half-truths more quickly than ever before. One must be aware of these faults processing new information about these sport figures in the public forum, and know that the media’s proclamation of opinion as fact is just as common as fact itself nowadays. This is never truer than when discussing stories that involve ego.

Recently, a surprising story broke regarding San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, and the rumor he was possibly being shopped to the “Factory of Sadness,” aka the Cleveland Browns, in exchange for draft picks. The story baffled anyone with even a slight investment in the NFL, given Harbaugh’s sterling first three seasons of his career.

Harbaugh’s resume:

W/L/T Record: 36-11-1

Division Titles: 2

Conference Titles: 1

Playoff Wins: 5 (at least one all three years)

Playoff Losses to Eventual Super Bowl Champion: 3

It’s hard to argue that the 49ers have not been the 2nd best team in football over the past three years, if not the best – even without a title. Harbaugh is the first coach in NFL history to take his team to three straight conference championship games in his first three seasons coaching, doing so with a franchise mired in irrelevancy for the better part of a decade.  He worked wonders with QB Alex Smith, transforming him from draft bust to a playoff-winning signal caller. He upped his market value enough to obtain a valuable second round draft pick from the Chiefs. His latest (and greatest) project, Colin Kaepernick, has blossomed into a true threat, capable of taking over any game (with a potential for consistency still yet to be reached). All of this came after turning around the Stanford football program that had finished 1-11 in 2006 and little to look forward to. The bottom line with Harbaugh is that he has an uncanny ability to win, and win immediately – even when he’s not dealt pocket aces.

Harbaugh has coached up Colin Kaepernick and all of the 49ers to new heights

These accomplishments make these rumors even more bizarre. The only quote from a source close to the 49ers I can find on this matter is from CEO Jed York, who told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King: “The Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it.” Assuming that this quote is truthful (and why wouldn’t you?), the 49ers made the logical decision. They have no need to deal a superstar head coach (and give way to uncertainty) for more picks, when they already have a roster that’s proven itself capable of reaching a Superbowl. From the moment these rumors came out, it seemed more like the Cleveland Browns were trying something bold and getting shot down in the discussions, rather than discussing anything that actually had a chance of happening. Yet it’s been picked up and repeated ad nauseam. It simply does not follow logic for the Niners to lose faith in such a valuable coaching commodity – especially in a league where even decent head coaches get sacked frequently.

Rumors then surfaced that the relationship between Harbaugh and team GM Trent Baalke were the root of the problem, with disagreements about player personnel coming to a head. Not a single article or story that I have read has contained a direct quote from Harbaugh or Baalke on the matter. Instead, ‘sources’ are cited. These nameless apparently all-knowing entities have become an all too common fuel to fire rumors and rushed stories. They put no one at risk of lying, and the journalist who cites these untraceable people can retract their ‘sources’ if they’re later proven wrong – usually with little blame, or worry about upholding standards. Jason La Canfora of CBS writes:

“The men are barely speaking, I’m told, and almost all communication is through email. Harbaugh also has a strained relationship with team president Paraag Marathe, sources said, and he has clashed with many within the organization. It could prove untenable. If anything, the impression I got this week was that the situation there is actually much worse than how it has been portrayed in the media, and helps explain the delay in giving a new deal to the coach, who has two years left on a contract he has outperformed.”

Look at the language, “It could prove untenable.” When did “could” become solid journalism?

“…all communication is through email”. Well, it is 2014, and people do tend to communicate that way. Where are the transcripts of these emails? Is Harbaugh telling Baalke to “screw off” whenever the GM hits ‘send’ to talk about the 49ers draft strategy? There is no way to understand the scope of the situation through this information. It is laziness, and indicative of one operating under the assumption that these little statements turn into fact supporting the story.

La Canfora also states “…the team might have to decide between Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke.”

Are you kidding me? This is an Angus Grade-A juicy rumor cut from this La Canfora’s need for web hits and sensationalism. Find me a quote from anyone of influence in the Niners front office that says anything remotely close to that. Post it in the comments below. I’ll wait. It’s pure conjecture.

Sure, Jim Harbaugh brutal honesty and upfrontness can rub some the wrong way (and helped make him the GIF-king of the league). Former Stanford players and current Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman (another man caught in an unnecessary and overblown media frenzy) and Doug Baldwin have gone on record saying they don’t really like the guy because he didn’t give them the greatest endorsements heading into their draft year. Harbaugh’s ego is centered in his need for control of his football team, and his uncompromising desire to win. At Stanford, during the media sessions where all coaches gathered, he only talked to Washington State’s Paul Wulff. Afterwards, he spoke about how he didn’t want to become friends with his enemies, and just wanted to focus on his team. The famous rivalry with Pete Carroll that spread into the same division in the NFL was charged in 2009, when Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion up 48-21 to try and make it an even 50. The microphones caught Carroll saying to Harbaugh post-game: “What’s your deal, Jim?” To which Harbaugh replied: “What’s your deal?”

What is Jim’s deal? Having watched every one of his games at Stanford and a great majority of them with San Francisco, I’d say his deal is winning. Maybe there is tension between him and Baalke, but until either party confirms the scope of that tension, there is no reason to ruin the great thing going on – especially with the brand new Levi’s Stadium opening up this fall.

Not everyone can be Bill Belichick – near-mute at press conferences/stern and stoic on the sidelines. The display of confidence isn’t always a detriment to a team, but the media eye will always catch it. A dominant ego with the intent of winning often works out. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, Tom Brady are multiple time championship winners, and just a few examples of that mindset. Their fire has always been acknowledged and celebrated by the media. However, during the Lakers’ lull post-Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe did receive criticism that his passions were getting the best of him, as the Lakers drifted into mediocrity for a few years. It would seem that a passionate ego is directly proportionate to the fan mindset of “what have you done for me lately?” Media sees the chance to pounce on athletes with boisterous behavior when they are not producing results. They fail to see the big picture, and get fans to start believing a narrative that shouldn’t exist. Many 49er fans were frustrated that the team could not break through and claim a Lombardi trophy. With the rumors swirling, some were even voicing their approval of potential departure for the ever talented Harbaugh. Any fan of the Jaguars, Browns, Bills, Raiders, and Buccaneers should have the right to slap any 49er fan across their ungrateful face for even suggesting that. Finding a coach worth his salt can be a decade or longer mission for franchises – as San Francisco fans should realize from the pre-Harbaugh days.

My ego > your ego.

Let’s leave the bashing for the people that probably deserve it over the course of time, like those who directly affect an organization or orchestrate chaos. Think of Terrell Owens, Jerry Jones, Al Davis, Manny Ramirez, Sean Avery – the types who either hold others back, or drag them down. The conflict brought on by the failed trade between Harbaugh and Baalke is probably nothing more than two men who are really, really good at their jobs butting heads over the betterment of their franchise. Expect them to hash out their differences, and realize what a great situation they’re both in in San Francisco.

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