Everybody who has followed the gigantic story over the University of Michigan football team and its sign-stealing scandal can agree on the following: The University of Michigan until recently employed a low-level staffer named Connor Stalions who impermissibly scouted opponents in person.
What this all means is a subject of bitter dispute. To the Big Ten Conference, which just suspended Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh for the rest of the season over Stalions’s activities, this is one of the most dire scandals in the history of sport. To others, including Michigan fans like myself, it is an overreaction so bizarre it is almost incomprehensible.
The Michigan fans are correct about this. Let me explain why.
In football, sign stealing — that is, trying to decode the signals opposing coaches use to tell their players what plays to run — is standard practice. As Bruce Feldman reported five years ago, the practice is close to universal. The scandal isn’t that Michigan stole signs, the scandal is that Connor Stalions broke the rules by sending people to games to record upcoming Michigan opponents from the sideline. Teams are allowed to decode signs off of television, or at games in which they are playing, but not through advanced scouting.
Stallions rose from a lifelong Michigan superfan who followed the team everywhere to having a position on the football staff earning $55,000 a year. He also had a side business restoring old vacuum cleaners from his front porch and wrote a manifesto of at least 550 pages on the future of Michigan football. Harbaugh has denied having any knowledge of his rule-breaking, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Stallions has resigned.
When news about Stalions broke, the league had a meeting, in which Michigan was excluded but every other team was represented, where the schools portrayed Stalions’s actions as an insurmountable advantage. League commissioner Tony Petitti, who is new to the league and the sport, followed these demands.
Petitti has a background in baseball and appears to see this episode through the prism of the Houston Astros, who had a sign-stealing scheme that conferred a massive advantage that tainted its championships. The league has imposed a draconian punishment — suspending Michigan’s head coach during its two most important games of the season — because it claims Stalions’s activities constituted a threat to the integrity of the game. The league claimed it had to “act expeditiously to preserve the integrity of competition.”
That would be a good argument if Stalions was still on the Michigan staff. In fact, the university suspended him as soon as it learned of his activities and has since fired him. The league informed every opponent that Stalions had scouted their signals, giving them the chance to change signals, something football teams do regularly (since sign stealing is so common).
In its response to Pettiti’s charges, the University of Michigan included proof that other teams had stolen Michigan’s signals and shared them with each other. (This sharing likely also violated the prohibition on in-person scouting — having a friendly coaching staff scout a future opponent from the sideline is no different than having a spectator do it in the stands.)
Michigan did not say it shouldn’t be punished for what Stalions did. It argued, instead, that this shows the importance of sign stealing in general and that Stalions’s illegal methods of doing it are far smaller than the Big Ten suggests. Opposing coaches depicted sign stealing as an advantage akin to having 15 players on the field or 21 points a game.
It is, in reality, an advantage teams gain routinely. One measure of the scale of what Stalions did was the betting lines in upcoming Michigan games. If Stalions had given Michigan an insurmountable edge, removing him and notifying opponents would show up in the betting lines, which — because they are monitored by professional gamblers for the slightest edge — reflect close to a scientifically accurate measure of the relative strength. The Vegas lines did not move at all after Stalions.
Second, Michigan pointed out that having its own codes broken explains why Harbaugh did not suspect Stalions of violating rules to break opposing teams’ codes. If the other teams could do it to Michigan without apparent rule-breaking, why would he assume his sign stealer was breaking the rules simply because he was successful?
And third, Michigan’s letter noted that the Big Ten had claimed sign stealing posed a threat to player safety — the idea being that knowing another team’s plays in advance would give such an advantage you would actually injure their players. This strange argument failed to point to any injuries a Michigan opponent had suffered, but it also collapses when you consider Michigan opponents had Michigan’s signs.
Rather than respond to any of these points, the Big Ten’s letter bizarrely mischaracterized them. It sniffed in its letter that it “vehemently rejects any defense by the University or any other Conference member that cheating is acceptable because other teams do it too.” But Michigan never claimed anywhere in its letter that cheating is acceptable. To the contrary, Michigan’s letter stated it “takes all rules violations seriously and is fully cooperating with the NCAA’s apparently thorough but expedited investigation. Based on what that investigation shows, Michigan is prepared to accept responsibility for its employee’s conduct and its institutional responsibilities.” The pertinence of endemic sign stealing was not that Stallions’s activities were acceptable but that it completely changes the context of his offense.
If the Big Ten had a strong or even plausible case for its punishment, it would not have to lean on an obvious falsehood.
The Big Ten’s letter also repeated its claim that sign stealing poses a threat to player safety. “I find it credible that impermissible advance scouting increases the risk of injury to student athletes because if you know what play your opponent is running, then you also know where your opponents’ players will be on the field,” writes Pettiti. “Although the University attempted to downplay and disregard these safety concerns in its response, I am not willing to do so.”
The ignorance in this passage is so stunning that I have difficulty understanding how this man has managed to be employed in a sports field. If it’s true that decoding an opposing team’s play signals poses a threat to player safety, then:
1) Why does the NCAA allow other forms of sign stealing, which are routinely successful?
2) The threat to player safety allegedly caused by Michigan cracking its opponents’ signals was already eliminated when the league informed its opponents their codes were broken.
3) If it’s dangerous to play football when the opposing team knows your play, and opposing teams are often able to figure this out through code-breaking or other scouting, then why is football allowed at all?
Am I biased? Yes. Is my bias the reason I have followed this story with Talmudic devotion? Absolutely.
I would never argue that just because everybody does it, Michigan shouldn’t be punished. They certainly deserve punishment. Either they’re the only program to break the rules while stealing signs (unlikely) or they hired the dumbest, sloppiest sign stealer to do it (probably), but either way, punishment of some kind is merited.
But what’s happened here is a total novice getting spun up into treating a minor rule violation by a low-level staffer as a historical scandal and literal threat to the safety of football players. He has continued to repeat blatant falsehoods while refusing to climb down from his untenable position.
My view of this is not unlike my view of the Hillary Clinton email scandal — sure, she was wrong to use a private email account for her business, but no, this was not a scandal that merited daily front-page headlines or locking anybody up. It’s not a comfort to learn that panicky herd thinking is a phenomenon not limited to politics.