Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
Forgive the blatant boosterism of this month’s letter, but I’m still recovering from the euphoria of seeing my alma mater’s football team in Rome last week. It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience for the coaches, players, families, journalist and this die-hard fanatic who’s been here the last 18 years without missing a single Michigan football game on TV or radio, thanks to the wonders of the internet and digital streaming! Even the fiercest critics of head coach Jim Harbaugh are admitting he has pulled off something special in the often cynical world of collegiate athletics. (Click here, here and here if you’re interested in how the Italian press covered it.)
I won’t bore you with my amateur analysis of the team’s practices and scrimmage. Instead, let’s think about how and why Coach Harbaugh and the University of Michigan came to Rome in the first place.
First, the “how.” The Michigan football team brings in huge amounts of money for the university. It has the largest stadium in the country as well as TV and merchandising contracts that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. But there was no budget line for the Rome trip. Harbaugh said it was made possible by the generosity of an anonymous single donor, whom he called “an incredible Michigan man.”
Who could possibly pay for more than 150 people to spend a week in Rome, which included staying at one of the most expensive luxury hotels in the city and feeding massive football players? Someone who clearly has made a lot of money in a free-market economy! This kind of philanthropy, made, to repeat, without any recognition of the donor, simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. The taxi driver who took me to the Stadio dei Marmi complained Italy doesn’t invest enough in its athletes; I countered that Italy doesn’t encourage enough wealth creation to allow people to do so.
The wealth needed for such philanthropy can be created only in a market economy. And rather than being driven purely by self-interest, egoism or greed, the wealthy often invest or donate their profits to causes they believe in because they are free to do so (although often with government “encouragement” through the tax code). No centrally-planned or socialist economy could allow such an experience to take place. Economic liberty and personal generosity are essential for human flourishing on such a large scale.
Now, the “why.” Before the trip, many of the players said they were most looking forward to visiting the Colosseum, which is understandable since Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is a modern version of it. Football players are also the closest thing we have to gladiators in modern society. For Coach Harbaugh, however, the Vatican was the highlight. After meeting Pope Francis and presenting him with a personalized helmet and a pair of Nike Jordan Jumpman shoes, the coach noted, “If I accomplish nothing more in my life, if I go right now, I'll be going out a blessed man.”
Those were the same words he used when I told him and his father Jack that I was brought into the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II. Harbaugh wanted to have his newborn son, who’s named John Paul, baptized by Pope Francis but settled for having the baptism and his daughter’s First Communion celebrated by an American priest at Sant’Anna, the parish church of Vatican City.
Harbaugh also had this to say about meeting the pope:
“The experience was emotional, it was beautiful. The Holy Father’s face is beautiful. His smile. The way he talks is peaceful. It’s calm. It felt like this is what it would be like to meet Jesus Christ. […] I've been trying to figure out what the experience means and what I need to do with it, he gave me the marching orders to pray for him -- but I have that part down. A couple minutes after, I met Msgr. McClory from Detroit and asked him what I should do, how to figure it all out. He said to pray, once you get away to be silent and pray about it and ask God what this moment of grace, this opportunity and this experience is supposed to lead me to. So I will do that. Seems like great advice."
Jim Harbaugh is a wealthy, famous and ambitious man who had already reached the top of the coaching profession when he took the San Francisco 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl, where he lost to the Baltimore Ravens, coached by his older brother John. He took a job at his alma mater in the collegiate ranks when few thought he would because he wanted to rebuild the program and give his young children the chance to experience what he did in Ann Arbor. Commenting on the Rome trip, Harbaugh said it brought together the three priorities of his life: faith, then family, and then football. While not free from suffering (having been previously married) or adversity (having been fired by the 49ers), his life shows that success and piety are not mutually exclusive.
For many of the Michigan players, this was their first trip outside the United States. Coming to Rome was billed as an educational opportunity, which it surely was. It is a healthy reminder that education often takes place outside the classroom, certainly important for athletes who are usually known for their brawn rather than their brains. Harbaugh wants to give his student-athletes the same chances other students have to study abroad, do internships, or just take a month off and go home, all of which are unheard of in major collegiate athletics. He would like to take the team to South Africa or Brazil next year.
Those are great locations but they can’t compete with the Eternal City. Rome is more than the ruins of an ancient civilization or a tourist destination; it remains the heart of a living faith that can still touch the young and old, rich and poor in ways that no other place can. “It's better than I ever expected or could have hoped for," Harbaugh said. "Rome is, I mean, I don't like comparing cities, but this city is the best. It's mesmerizing."
One of the many wonderful things about living in Rome is meeting pilgrims who go to the Vatican or see the pope for the first time. It has a way of re-igniting the joy that can be diluted by routine and the frustrations of living in a partially functioning city. For a Michigan man like me, seeing the team and especially Coach Harbaugh so moved by their experience will be that kind of spark for quite a while.
It should also remind us of the blessings of a free-market economy that make this kind of philanthropy and all the good that comes from it possible, especially when so few world leaders are defending wealth creation these days. So I’d like to say “grazie” to that “incredible Michigan man” whoever he is. Your generosity has touched more people than you can have possibly imagined. I’ll remember it when Michigan takes the field against Florida on September 2, 2:00am Rome time.
It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!