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Stateside Podcast: U-M's alleged sign-stealing scandal

On Saturday, Michigan State takes on Ohio State, and Michigan plays Penn State.
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On Saturday, Michigan State takes on Ohio State, and Michigan plays Penn State.

The University of Michigan football program is in the thick of allegations of sign-stealing. Stateside spoke with Michael Rosenberg, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, about the accusations and what’s to come for the program.

What's U of M’s football team being accused of?

The NCAA is currently investigating whether or not Michigan has been stealing signs of opposing teams, meaning sending staff to future opponents’ games to record and decode their plays and play signals. Connor Stalions, a former analyst for Michigan football, is at the center of this investigation.

According to Rosenberg, the NCAA declared scouting opponents in person illegal about 30 years ago. This decision was made to cut costs and minimize unwarranted competitive advantages. What makes sign-stealing against the rules is the act of sending someone to record or document an opposing team’s signs. For example, if someone catches a sign on TV or on social media by happenstance, this is not considered illegal sign-stealing.

What are some of the potential outcomes of these accusations?

“Michigan is going to go scorched earth,” Rosenberg said. “They're basically going to say, ‘You are singling out Jim Harbaugh because you don't like him. You're not happy that he's won the league the last two years. And if you're going to try to say that we did this, we are going to go hard and prove that it's not just us, but there are other programs that did (sign-stealing).’”

Rosenberg said that this could end up being a situation where “everybody loses.”

Despite U of M football coach Jim Harbaugh claiming to not know about this scouting, Rosenberg said the NCAA will not need proof that Harbaugh was aware of this activity to punish the team or the program. Rosenberg predicted that Harbaugh’s already tense relationships with several other Big Ten coaches will not improve for a long time.

Rosenberg also predicted that Michigan will take every legal route possible to delay sanctions until after the NCAA investigation has concluded. Rosenberg said that U of M football is “definitely better off” with a punishment coming later as opposed to sooner if they want to win this year’s championship.

If Michigan is found to have participated in sign-stealing, the NCAA could potentially vacate some of Michigan’s previous wins in this season. However, Rosenberg said that the College Football Playoffs (CFP), a separate governing body from the NCAA, wants nothing to do with this scandal.

“The last thing in the world that (the CFP) want(s) with as much money at stake … is to hold a four-team playoff, and the team that almost everybody would say is among the top four teams is not invited,” Rosenberg said.

Is it really possible that Jim Harbaugh could have not known about the sign-stealing?

To Rosenberg, “absolutely.”

“I think in any sort of field, you can have somebody who crosses a line, rationalizes it, thinks no one's going to look, that that definitely happens,” Rosenberg said.

If Harbaugh truly did not know, the line of questioning becomes: what information did Connor Stalions have, who was he reporting to, and did they have reason to question the information being presented to them?

A decade after former NFL commissioner Roger Goodell caught heat for the Patriots’ “Spygate” scandal, Rosenberg said that he sees illegal scouting as “the one rule you really can't break” if someone is interested in a NFL job. Considering the interest Harbaugh has shown in rejoining the NFL the past few seasons, Rosenberg said that this is a strong argument against Harbaugh knowing about any potential sign-stealing within his program.

“You can have recruiting violations. You can have all sorts of things — the NFL wouldn't care. You can't do this,” Rosenberg said.

GUEST:

  • Michael Rosenberg, senior writer for Sports Illustrated

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.
Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.