Much Ado About the Michigan Wolverines Football Team

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jason Gay headlined “Much Ado About the Michigan Wolverines”:

There is an important takeaway from the controversy currently swirling around the University of Michigan football team, and it is this:

No matter your opinion of this situation—whether you believe what’s being alleged (against-the-rules spying on other teams) is serious, scandalous, mildly scandalous, or a whole pile of nothing, even if you’re totally reserving judgment until all facts are clear—if a controversy involves Jim Harbaugh and his fancy undefeated No. 2 Michigan Wolverines…it is hilarious.

I say this not only as a lonely Wisconsin Badger in a Journal newsroom thick with swaggering, national championship-hungry Wolverines, but also as a follower of college football, a sport in which glee over a rival’s difficulty is a celebrated emotion.

That’s not a gallant opinion, but I am not alone. If you don’t feel Schadenfreude when your school’s nemesis is struggling/losing/under siege, I dare say you don’t care about college football.

On the specifics of the Michigan matter, what’s being alleged and investigated—whether anyone connected to Wolverines football broke the rules by scouting games of rivals and filming sidelines, hoping to glean information about signals, I have a few thoughts:

Foremost, my heart goes out to any individual or individuals who allegedly traveled around the heartland, trying to stay awake and watch a comprehensive season of Big Ten football. Riveting theater, this is often not. If you’ve ever wanted to pass three months of Saturdays falling asleep on your feet watching failed runs, incomplete screen passes, botched kicks and dropped interceptions, this would be the experience for you.

Ohio State vs. Michigan is one thing, and yes, some Pac-12 glamour is on its way, but I would much rather watch the marching bands at 2/3rds of these schools than the football. In fact, if these allegations are proven true, a suitable punishment for illegally scouting Big Ten football is: being forced to watch more Big Ten football.

(For most Big Ten teams, do signals even matter? At least half of this league is simply running up the middle, between the tackles, three times, for an average of 1.8 yards, then punting. There: I just saved you $1,200 in gas money.)

None of this is to diminish what’s being alleged to have happened with Michigan, which is indeed serious, and may call into question past results, including, importantly, all of its victories against Wisconsin since 1892. In fact, if Ann Arbor would like to pre-emptively surrender all of the university’s 52 wins over the Badgers (against, uh, 17 losses) I will accept on behalf of my alma mater. I’ll let them keep the 7-7 tie in 1921, just because I am a reasonable person, not a hater.

Do these allegations undermine the Wolverine dominance over the past couple of seasons? I can only hope so, but we don’t have anywhere close to a full set of facts. The investigation is ongoing, and we have no official confirmation of what was allegedly done—or not done—by an analyst with the Michigan team, a Navy grad named Connor Stalions, now suspended by the school. ESPN reported Tuesday that Stalions, who hasn’t made any public comment regarding the allegations, purchased tickets at 12 Big Ten schools, and also for schools outside the conference that were possible championship contenders.

We don’t know how—or if—this was scouting, or how—or if—this alleged scouting was accessed by the team. We do know the Big Ten conference felt compelled to announce an NCAA inquiry and alert future opponents. And we have a Harbaugh statement: “I don’t have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment. I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.”

This does have the makings of a classic what did they know/when did they know it imbroglio, with the caveat: Sign-stealing is an abundant practice in college football, to the point it’s become part of the aura of successful teams. How could a sport that has long embraced war terminology (field generals, etc.) turn away from the dark art of spycraft? Game day sign-stealing, reviewing sideline shots during televised game footage to see if signs can be corresponded with plays…it happens.

The allegations against Michigan are considered more egregious because it involves alleged advance scouting on the road—a practice college football banned decades ago. But as the Journal’s Laine Higgins wrote last weekend; the reason wasn’t morality about espionage; it was about cost. Colleges didn’t want to create an advantage for schools rich enough to send scouts all over the place, so they agreed to prohibit in-person scouting and filming.

This is a rare instance of college football agreeing to any kind of financial fairness; there’s no level playing field moralizing about advantages like coaching salaries or facilities. It isn’t like a school sits around and thinks, Well, we were going to install a lazy river around the weight room, but we realized _____________ doesn’t have one, so we just put in a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man.

The most banal, predictable aspect of this controversy is that it’s entirely avoidable. The big reason sign-stealing remains a thing in college football is because they don’t use in-helmet communication systems, as the NFL does. That’s why you have the sideline personnel holding up crazy signs with numbers and hieroglyphs and photographs of platypuses and Abe Vigoda; it’s what incentivizes personnel to spend hours probing: What does Abe Vigoda mean! Deploying a common, widespread technology that allows coaches to speak to players would drastically curtail if not eliminate the practice.

Here’s what Nebraska’s head coach Matt Rhule, who recently held the same position in the NFL, said this week: “There should be 100% [helmet microphone technology]. You can get rid of all the stupid signs on the sideline and the pictures of rock stars and all that stuff and we can just play football the way it was meant to be.”

Could the Wolverines face punishment this season? This isn’t the first controversy to dog the team this year; Michigan sat Harbaugh for the season’s first three games with a self-imposed suspension amid an ongoing NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations.

It’s possible the Big Ten or NCAA acts quickly here, but it’s also possible an investigation lingers long after the completion of this season—past the Ohio State showdown, past Big Ten West division champ Wisconsin’s stunning win in the Big Ten championship, past the bowl games, Wisconsin’s shock victory over James Madison in the college football playoff, and beyond.

As someone who enjoys tweaking Michigan, and especially my Michigan colleagues, I’m not saying I don’t find this situation fun. It is certainly more fun than watching Wisconsin lose to Iowa in a game that featured a Big Ten-tastic 18 punts.

Even without a conclusion, a rival can savor it. It isn’t gracious, but Michigan knows. It’s a college football thing.

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