Lilly Donahue | Indiana University

Jim Harbaugh has always been known as a man of unconventional methods, and he’s taking those methods on a global tour. This week, Harbaugh and his University of Michigan football team are in Rome, Italy on what seems to be a spring practice-study abroad hybrid. Personally, I think this is a great move, as it provides the players with a valuable cultural experience and gives American football additional marketing abroad. Harbaugh has stated that he plans to take future teams on similar trips to South Africa, Japan, Israel, and possibly England or New Zealand. The team will be practicing in AS Roma’s stadium, but their trip is hardly reserved for football. The team has been traveling around the many historic sites of Rome, and will be meeting with refugees and Pope Francis later this week.

QB Wilton Speight teaches a group of refugees how to throw a football

Harbaugh also gave two players the chance to meet the Pope through an essay contest, and the winners are very interesting. According to USA Today, the two players who will shake hands with the Pope are Salim Makki and Grant Newsome. Interestingly enough, Makki is Muslim, but in his essay he discussed the deep respect he has for Pope Francis’s defense of Muslims and his support for Syrian refugees. Newsome, on the other hand, is Catholic and grew in his faith after a severe knee injury last season. Jim Harbaugh will also meet with the Pope, and will give him the gift of a custom Michigan football helmet, and, I kid you not, a pair of UM Jordans. I get the helmet, as that is a nice decorative piece for an office, but the Jordans seem to be an unique gift. I can’t imagine that Pope Francis will be sporting the J’s at Mass, but miracles can happen!

The Pope’s new pumps

International Studies and College Sports

Michigan’s trip to Rome is not the first of its kind, but Harbaugh’s plan to make it a yearly event seem to be original. I believe that other schools should attempt to mimic this, as it give players the chance to study abroad, connect with a new culture, and to go somewhere that they likely would not otherwise. Michigan’s trip was funded by a private donor, and it’ll be interesting to see if any other major boosters will try to emulate this move. While the idea of a practice/study trip is unusual, games played abroad is not as rare. College football games that have been played abroad were in the Bahamas, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Tanzania, Canada, Bermuda, Germany, Italy, UK, France, West Germany, Austria, and Cuba (pre-Castro).

Princeton takes on Kwansei Gakuin University in Osaka, Japan

I love the idea of continuing these international games, but I really like the idea of team trips as a form of sports diplomacy. I’d be interested in seeing the NCAA creating some sort of board of football players who serve as ambassadors of the game and travel abroad, or some sort of NCAA funding for annual trips. I doubt that would happen, but I’d love to see this sort of partnership be created! Kudos to Harbaugh and UM for providing their players with such an important experience.