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Michigan's Sign Stealing Scandal: So Is It Really a Problem?
Looking at the What Football Analysts and Coaches Have to Say About Michigan's 'Off-The-Field' Allegations
As Week 8 of College Football comes to an end, only a few teams remain undefeated. One of which are the #2 Ranked Michigan Wolverines. However, as the Wolverines cruise on to an unstoppable run, it’s not other teams that grab on to their jerseys, but rather, a controversial allegation regarding the team’s ‘Sign Stealing’. Today we’re looking at some of the updated reports on Michigan’s recent allegations and whether this is actually a problem.
The Updated Stories
In the heart of the college football season, an unexpected storm has hit the University of Michigan’s football program. The NCAA has launched an investigation into allegations of the team's involvement in sign-stealing, casting a shadow over their recent accomplishments.
In mid-October, the Big Ten confirmed the NCAA's investigation into Michigan, addressing allegations that the university had sent individuals associated with its football program to attend and secretly record opponent’s games. While sign-stealing might seem like a minor infraction, the potential violation of NCAA rules places the integrity of the game at stake.
The crux of the investigation emerged from an unnamed external investigative firm. They approached the NCAA with a trove of evidence—documents and videos allegedly found on computer drives used by multiple Michigan coaches. These materials suggest a sign-stealing operation, hinting at potential unfair advantages the Wolverines might have enjoyed.
Central to this unfolding drama is Connor Stalions, an administrative specialist at Michigan. His association with Michigan's football started in 2015 and has since been amplified with emerging photos and reports suggesting his direct involvement in attending and recording games of potential opponents. Given these revelations, Stalions finds himself at the center of this maelstrom.
The controversy here is that sign stealing in the NCAA is not explicitly ‘Illegal’. There are no rules that specifically prohibits any actions regarding sign stealing. However, it does state that in-person scouting of future opponents are strictly prohobited, according to NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1 which was enacted in 1994 to promote an equal playing ground amongst college teams. The 2023 NCAA Football rulebook also states that, “any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel is prohibited”.
Sign stealing has also been a major controversy in other sports leagues as well. One of the major cases of it occurred in the MLB, with the Houston Astros using electronic devices to decode and communicate the opposing teams' pitching signs during their 2017 World Series-winning season. This scandal, widely known as the Astros sign-stealing scandal, implicated the team in using technology in a way that clearly violated MLB's rules against electronic sign-stealing. The fallout was significant, leading to suspensions, fines, and the tarnishing of reputations.
Similarly, although not explicitly outlined in the NCAA rulebook, the use of electronic devices for sign stealing could be seen as analogous to the Astros' situation and could therefore be interpreted as a violation of the spirit of fair play. This ambiguity in the rules leaves room for ethical debates within collegiate sports, where the line between competitive intelligence and unsportsmanlike conduct is often blurred.
Experts Speak Out
Deion Sanders, Colorado's head coach, emphasizes the fundamental difference between baseball and football when it comes to sign stealing. According to Sanders, the inherent physicality of football levels the playing field, as foreknowledge of a play does not guarantee the ability to counter it. Sanders believes that execution, rather than information, is the cornerstone of success in football—a sentiment echoed by his recollection of the heydays of the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, where the opposition knew the plays but could not stop them.
Todd Blackledge of NBC Sports, who provided commentary during the Michigan versus Michigan State game, acknowledges that sign stealing is a widespread and traditional tactic aimed at gaining an edge. He differentiates between acceptable competitive strategies and actions that cross the line, such as in-person scouting and electronic recording, which are clear violations. While acknowledging the severity of Michigan's alleged actions, Blackledge is careful to separate the team's performance from the controversy. He emphasizes the talent and skill of the Michigan team, suggesting that regardless of the outcome of the allegations, their abilities on the field stand on their own merit.
“This is not new, it’s not uncommon. Everybody’s looking for some form of competitive advantage, whether they’re doing it off of game film of previous games or in-game as the game is unfolding. That’s why teams are constantly changing their signals through the course of the season, because they know this is happening. It’s a common practice. It’s not illegal. But, the things that Michigan is accused of doing — in-person scouting, which never was illegal until 1994, and using some kind of electronic or recording devices — those things are illegal. If it comes to be that they proved that this is true, then there should be some consequences for Michigan.” - Todd Blckledge
The consensus among these experts seems to be that while the ethical boundaries of sign stealing are debatable, the impact of such strategies is mitigated by the physical demands and unpredictable nature of football. The focus on execution and talent is consistently highlighted as the defining factor in the sport's success, despite the potential advantages gleaned from sign stealing.
So, does the sign stealing scandal put an objection to Michigan’s 8-0 record. No, there is no denying that the Wolverines are still one of the best teams in College Football. And as many experts have said, “It’s part of the game". However, we’ll have to see what changes are brought up from future updates, and how the NCAA plans to react on this. Until then, all eyes are open.
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