Sorry, Michigan’s Championship Is Not Tarnished

After the Michigan Wolverines put the finishing touches on a perfect season on Monday night, outclassing the Washington Huskies 34-13 in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Houston, the asterisk calls came flooding in. Michigan, which finished 15-0, was embroiled in two scandals this year. One involved reports of recruiting violations during COVID-19, and the other was a sign-stealing imbroglio that became the talk of college football—and all sports—over these past few months.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was suspended twice, for three games at the beginning of the season and for Michigan’s final three regular-season games, prior to the College Football Playoff. So many Michigan critics believe the title is forever stained, deserving of an asterisk to indicate the championship’s compromised nature in the record books. “All my friends who are Michigan football fans get very triggered when I tell them this championship will always have an asterisk,” wrote one user on X. “I’m not sure what to say, don’t cheat and you won’t have to deal with it.” Fans of Ohio State and other Michigan rivals have called for the NCAA to vacate Michigan’s title. “National title for Harbaugh’s cheating would render college football meaningless,” blared one headline in the Indianapolis Star.

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Whoa. The millions of people, a near-record, turning into this year’s playoff games seem to disagree. It’s time to turn down the temperature here. Michigan’s mistakes are unfortunate: breaking rules should never be celebrated. But let’s make a fair assumption that Michigan ceased any illicit sign-stealing after news of the controversy broke in October. The Wolverines still won out. They beat every power opponent—Ohio State, Alabama, Washington, others—that lined up against them this season. They were the best on the field. They are worthy champions. 

Asterisks are so often overrated. That’s because in recent sports history, teams that fans love to hate continued to win after the whiff of scandal has supposedly stained them forever. These teams have pretty much proven that they didn’t need to bend the rules. 

Take the New England Patriots, who’ve won six Super Bowls under head coach Bill Belichick, whose future with the franchise remains tenuous after back-to-back losing seasons. “Spygate” erupted during the 2007 season. New England was found to have filmed the New York Jets’ signals during a game in September: Belichick was fined $500, the Pats were docked $250,000, and the team lost its 2008 first-round draft pick. But New England finished the regular season undefeated anyway, becoming just the second team in NFL history to do so. Although the New York Giants upset New England in that season’s Super Bowl, the Patriots would win three more titles after Spygate and 2015’s Deflategate, in which New England was found to have used underinflated footballs during the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Whenever Belichick retires, Spygate will be mentioned, no doubt. But he’ll still go down as the arguably the greatest coach in NFL history. Tom Brady served a four-game suspension for Deflategate. He’s still universally regarded as the GOAT. 

And take the Houston Astros. In 2020, Major League Baseball announced that Houston stole signs with banned electronics during their 2017 championship season. Players would watch the camera feed from center field, scope out the catcher’s signal, and bang on a trash can to alert a Houston hitter to expect a curveball or off-speed pitch. Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired. Ex-Astros bench coach Alex Cora lost his manager’s job with the Boston Red Sox (though Boston re-hired him late 2020). 

But the organization hired new leadership, including manager Dusty Baker, and the team returned to the World Series in 2021. Houston won it all again in 2022. The Astros proved they were still a championship team, sans trash can. 

At Michigan, former staffer Connor Stalions resigned on Nov. 3 amid allegations that he ran a scheme to film future opponents in person, a violation of NCAA rules. (The NCAA has yet to release a formal finding. One observer wondered if he’d receive a championship ring.) 

Harbaugh’s future remains in flux: he recently hired an agent well-known in NFL circles, Don Yee—Brady’s rep. He’d be welcome back in the NFL, where Harbaugh enjoyed success with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014 He’s denying wrongdoing at Michigan, his alma mater. “Off-the-field issues — we are innocent,” Harbaugh said after the game. “We stood strong and tall because we knew we were innocent and I'd just like to point that out.”

Few are treating Harbaugh as toxic. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared today Michigan Wolverine Day in her state. President Biden called Michigan “true victors” on X. (Is he conceding Ohio?) 

“Hail! to the victors,” as the Michigan fight song goes. Let’s not go too far. But much respect to the Wolverines. 

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com