Mazi Smith case a sudden pothole in Michigan football’s ride to perfection

by | Dec 2, 2022 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Not a good look. Admit that much. Even if you are a Maize and Blue maniac, your star football co-captain being arrested on a gun possession felony in early October, being allowed to play for Michigan football the very next day, not being charged for the next seven weeks while he continues to play Saturday after Saturday and he and his school say absolutely nothing, then finally, with the Ohio State game finished and won, being formally charged yet immediately allowed to leave the state for the Big Ten championship — all of this under a prosecutor who is a Michigan grad, teaches at the law school and dismisses the whole thing as “wholly unremarkable” — well, come on.

If U-M’s not your team, your eyes roll so hard they fall out.

The yellow brick road of the 2022 season just got bumpier for the Wolverines, thanks to Mazi Smith, a giant of a defensive tackle who was rated the top “freak” in college football this year and has twice been an All-Big-Ten first team selection.

For some reason, Smith, a senior who stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 337 pounds, decided he needed a gun. As a college student. He had one in his car when he was pulled over for speeding in Ann Arbor on the morning of Oct. 7. Problem was, according to police, he didn’t have a concealed weapons license for that gun nor a driver’s license on him.

The former is a felony, the latter a bad look. Despite both, Smith was taken to a police station, arrested, and promptly let go, meaning there was no urgency to charge him.

In this case, “no urgency” was coincidentally how long it took to finish the Big Ten regular football season.

Not a good look.

U-M’s response missing something

The fact that we are just finding out about this left many fans stunned. They shouldn’t be. When legal trouble rises in college football, the flaps come down faster than a revival tent in a hurricane.

No one should be surprised that Smith played for nearly two months with nothing said or done. No one should be surprised that top two men on the U-M football pyramid — athletic director Warde Manuel and football coach Jim Harbaugh — released vanilla statements of support for Smith that avoided even the hint of disappointment.

“We are aware of the charge against Mazi from a traffic stop back in October,” said Manuel. “Mazi was honest, forthcoming and cooperative from the very beginning and is a tremendous young man.”

Notice a word that is missing from that statement.


Not mentioned once. Manuel calls it “the charge from a traffic stop.” That’s no accident. Nor is mentioning Smith being a “tremendous young man.” Michigan wants to deflect all attention away from the fact that a football player big enough to defend himself against almost any threat still had an unlicensed gun in his car.

Why exactly does a college senior in Ann Arbor — especially one not likely to be harassed — need a gun? And don’t U-M employees like Manuel and Harbaugh have an obligation to at least acknowledge that the school has a rule that prohibits guns, even those with CCWs, anywhere on campus property?

Where was Smith planning on carrying that weapon? He couldn’t legally park at school, go to class or even drive to practice with it. Doesn’t that warrant a comment?

Apparently not in the world of big-time college football. Smith’s lawyer said Smith was in the process of getting a CCW permit and has one now. That really doesn’t answer the issues. Harbaugh only said, “I have respect for our judicial process and with that respect brings confidence that a fair and just resolution is forthcoming.

“Mazi’s character and the trust that he has earned over the past four years will continue to be considered throughout the process.”

It’s nice a coach sticks up for his player.

But a father sticks up for his son, an employer for his employee, a husband for his wife. It doesn’t have any effect on whether a law was broken. Mazi Smith may be the greatest kid you’ve ever met. Michigan, his school, isn’t teaching him a very good lesson here.

The cries for justice

There was a time — at U-M and other big-time sports programs — where this kind of charge would have warranted a fast suspension from the team, at least until the situation was resolved. The coach might have privately screamed, “What the hell were you thinking?’’ The athletic director might have said, “We can’t allow this to shade how people see our university.”

That was a long time ago. Today, the standard operating procedure is stall, drag out, keep the stars playing and don’t let the media assume anything negative about a player before a judge issues a verdict — hopefully well after the season is over.

It’s worth noting that by the time the issue resolves itself, Smith will be done playing football for Michigan. You can call that coincidence. You can call it convenient.

It’s still a bad look.

It also paves the way to cynicism. Already, Michigan State fans are screaming that when Spartan players were caught on tape roughing up a Michigan player in the Big House tunnel, Harbaugh called for swift justice. And MSU suspended those players in a matter of days. Seven of them face criminal charges.

“Where is Harbaugh’s swift justice call now?” they yell.

At the same time, other cynics (no shortage of cynics here) point out that Michigan is a state where people roundly and loudly defend the right to own guns and carry them almost everywhere. Yet some of those same people (MSU fans perhaps?) want Mazi Smith ousted from the team.

A cloud comes over the season

Let’s be clear. Committing an act of violence and not having paperwork for a gun are not the same thing. There are victims in the former. Not in the latter.

It should also be noted that the legal paperwork for a case like Smith’s, if the suspect is not detained overnight, often takes a month, two months, or even longer.

As for whether Smith should have been held overnight in custody (as Emoni Bates, the EMU basketball star was for a similar charge), well, given Washtenaw County and its current prosecutor, Eli Savit, it’s not highly unusual for someone as recognizable as Smith, with no prior record and not considered a threat, to be let go and formally charged later for such an incident.

But how does it look? From the legal perspective, it’s debatable. Especially when Savit is a graduate of the U-M Law School, where he now lectures. But from the school perspective? It’s damning. It looks like they wanted a star player to continue his season uninterrupted, wanted no one to know until they absolutely had to, and wanted to avoid the thorny issue of why a player needs a gun at a school where guns are forbidden.

They got their wish. But it comes at a price. It looks bad. And with a Big Ten championship Saturday night featuring a team (Purdue) with nothing to lose, a potential letdown after the Ohio State win, no Blake Corum for the rest of the campaign, and now a disruption from the real world and the questions that will pop up all over the social media that players will be checking today and tomorrow, well, that yellow brick road of Michigan’s so-far-perfect season has some boulders up ahead, and one unseemly shadow behind.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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