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Exploring the Michigan Sign Stealing Scandal

As the weekend slate of college football games was set to get underway this past week, allegations of sign stealing rocked the University of Michigan and its football program. This time, the program is being looked at for improperly scouting opponents in advance with attempts to steal signs in order to gain a distinct advantage on the field. While scouting itself is not illegal, the methods and ways the program has been accused of doing such can be considered a major violation.

The Wolverines have recently wrapped up a self-imposed three-game ban for head coach Jim Harbaugh for failing to cooperate with the NCAA concerning a series of recruiting violations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the university and coach Harbaugh agreed to the original punishment handed out by the NCAA (which later told the school that they would continue the investigation after the season) and imposed this ban themselves, there will still be a conclusion to the investigation and possibly more severe penalties doled out at the end of Michigan’s season. While this new slate of issues are only allegations thus far, a large ominous cloud now hangs over the folks in Ann Arbor.

The Letter of the By-Law:

The allegations can be misleading as sign stealing is an apparent part of the game. For this reason, many teams use various strategies to convey plays to their players. Some teams hold up multiple signs with goofy icons and logos to confuse the opponent and inform the skill players of the next play or scheme. Programs like Ohio State, well aware of possible sign stealing (not just from Michigan), use grad assistants to signal plays in. Of course, that may be a dummy call as they have used the same signage idea as other schools.

Teams can use coaches in the booth or on the field to try and decipher those mixed messages; think of it like archaeologists trying to crack the Rosetta Stone. Using electronic devices isn’t allowed, or in Michigan’s case, sending scouts to future opponents’ games.

At issue is NCAA By-Law 11.6.1, which states, “Off Campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited.”

The accusation levied against the Wolverine program is that some individuals paid for and attended games of future opponents, including Big Ten Conference teams, as well as possible College Football Playoff programs. They then went to these games and gained information, which, when combined with their traditional scouting methods, gave the Wolverines a distinct advantage. If charged and found to be accurate, Michigan could be in for some severe ramifications, some of which are already being handed out to staffers now.

For Every Action a Consequence:

Again, with these only being accusations, it remains to be seen what the punishment would look like. The NCAA has three tiers of violations, with Tier I being reserved for the most heinous actions. For reference, Harbaugh’s self-imposed game ban came on the heels of a Tier II allegation that was escalated after it was found out he may have lied or misinformed the group investigating the situation.

The University of Michigan had immediately suspended a “rogue” staffer named Connor Stallions. His title with the Wolverines is an analytics assistant, and he is a key person of interest in this investigation. The university, program, and coach Harbaugh deny the allegations and promise full cooperation, although this may or may not be enough to stem the tide of a full investigation. It is likely that this issue that, according to NCAA officials, has credible evidence that will lead to a full charge and then a full look into the matter. It is also highly likely that an analyst’s assistant did not act alone but rather worked closely with the Michigan coaching staff. Reports are already coming in that Stallions may have used ticket brokerage sites and his own personal credit card to see over 30 games spanning at least 11 Big Ten teams over a three-year stretch. New photos also suggest that he stood on the sidelines informing the Michigan defensive coordinator of what signals meant as soon as Ohio State started sending plays in. Should the charge reach a Tier I violation, expect the punishment to be swift and severe for the Wolverines.

Only one college football program has ever received the infamous NCAA “Death Penalty.” Southern Methodist University lost the following:

  • Over 50 scholarships during a four-year period

  • Were banned from playing for the entire season in 1987

  • All home games were canceled in 1988

  • Lost television rights through the 1989 season

  • Lost the right to post-season play through 1990

  • Reduction of staff by over 50%

  • Lost the ability to recruit off campus while also not being allowed to host paid campus visits for recruits

This series of penalties resulted in a severely handicapped football program with losses in coaching, player commitments, revenue, and promotional deals. The SMU Mustangs faded into oblivion as Texas and Oklahoma used this opportunity, excluding them from their newly formed Big 12 Conference. Over 30 years later, the Mustangs have barely scratched the surface of returning to prominence. For this type of penalty to be enforced, the NCAA must conclude that this issue and others have been repeated and ongoing, including several key staff members (Harbaugh), willfully.

Nevertheless, with this newest onslaught of potential wrongdoing, university officials have suspended contract negotiations with their head coach. The two parties had been working closely together to get an extension done by the end of the month, possibly putting Harbaugh in the same stratosphere pay-wise as top SEC coaches Kirby Smart and Nick Saban. Now, all of that seems up in the air, and a more likely outcome is that of Jim Harbaugh leaving for greener pastures as the Wolverine program is left to deal with the fallout (akin to Pete Carroll leaving USC for the Seattle position).

Either way, Michigan appears closer and closer to being in a lose-lose situation. If they let this play out and the football program is found of any violations, the entire university and possibly the Big Ten Conference will lose credibility. Top university officials may need to step in and ask Jim Harbaugh to resign and impose a strict penance to save face. The Ohio State program did this in 2011 as then-head coach Jim Tressel resigned for not properly handling a tattoo for memorabilia scandal. Penn State asked the legendary head coach Joe Paterno to step down amid the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that rocked Happy Valley. The NCAA is known to acknowledge a program’s efforts to self-discipline and sometimes warrant lesser penalties.

A Solution to the Underlying Problem:

Some would say tempo is the only solution to sign stealing; it is probably the worst argument I’ve ever heard. Almost every program I can think of that uses signals also uses tempo for offense. The real solution is simple: headsets. The NFL has been using headset and radio communication since the 1940s. Currently, the NFL allows one player on offense (the quarterback) and one player on defense (typically the Mike linebacker) to have a headset. This headset allows for signals, plays, and limited coaching to be called into and then distributed across the players on the field. Headset technology isn't perfect, but it would be better than the current system. I’m not sure why the NCAA doesn’t allow for this, but I would go one step further, a step they considered during the pandemic: headsets for everyone on the field. This simple fix would allow players to hear direct communication with coordinators and position coaches and reduce any confusion while maintaining the sport's integrity.

(Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

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