The University of Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh, is not averse to stirring the pot to create buzz and attention for his university and his football program. But, when news about a prominent university donor’s fundraiser for President Donald Trump broke, Harbaugh found himself in the middle of a controversy.
The donor, billionaire Stephen Ross, held the event after receiving the media’s flak and calls from social justice activists to boycott his business investments in the popular gym studios Equinox and SoulCycle. Ross is also the majority owner of the National Football League (NFL) team Miami Dolphins and one of his players criticized him on Twitter, a social media platform.
Ross issued a statement after the controversy arose and noted how he did not always agree with the president. However, this statement did not placate activists, and resulted in his resignation from the NFL’s social justice committee.
He also donates significant amounts to the University of Michigan, which is his alma mater. An earlier report mentioned that Ross has donated at least $378 million over the years. Some alumni sent a letter to the university and demanded the university reconsider Ross’s donations, to which the university cited the First Amendment and said it would not do so.
Harbaugh waded into the controversy when he tweeted congratulations on the news that Ross was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s leadership hall of fame:
Congrats to a Great Michigan Man! Stephen Ross to be Inducted into the NFF Leadership Hall of Fame https://t.co/TqCaCwqX0C
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) August 8, 2019
In his “Attack Each Day” podcast, Harbaugh defended Ross in spite of the public outcry. He said, “…so much Stephen Ross has done for so many across so many platforms. Now, he’s just getting bashed.” He added, “I even tweeted out ‘Congratulations’ for being inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame and I was getting backlash over that, over congratulating him for that.”
Harbaugh tweeted out the congratulations the same morning that the news of Ross’s fundraiser hit the news cycle. His podcast guest, former athletic director at University of Michigan (and according to Michigan Live, “a self-identified Republican”) Dave Brandon, said the following:
“I think we’re living in a time where the higher you put yourself in visibility and in a leadership position, the (more) vulnerable you are,” Brandon said. “There’s always going to be somebody shouting. Some kid’s going to be in their underwear in their basement on Twitter and they’re going to start some story.”
“I felt bad for Steve, because he’s as generous and as patriotic a guy as you’d ever want to meet. He took a lot of grief over this thing, which is just too bad. Just too bad.”
Harbaugh lamented that America now has “zealots on both sides, no matter what.” He added, “If it could be run like a football team and we all pulled together for each other, for the team, I think that would please everybody.”