Monday, November 13, 2023

Michigan Football Signgate Explanation/Update

 Here’s a summary/update for anyone confused about the off-field legal drama involving Michigan Football. 

This all started a few weeks ago when reports broke that someone had reported Michigan to the NCAA for allegedly filming opposing teams’ signs and signals, and the NCAA was going to investigate. Rumors have surfaced that the report came from a private investigator connected to Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, though this has not been confirmed.

The investigation centered on a low-level Michigan staffer, Connor Stalions, a retired USMC captain who had the job of trying to decode opposing teams’ signs. While NCAA rules do not prohibit decoding signs, they do prohibit using electronic devices to film opposing teams’ signs during games. Another NCAA rule prohibits team staff members from attending opponents’ games for in-person scouting. 

Stalions evidently determined that he could work around these rules by arranging for people not affiliated with Michigan Football to attend opponents’ games and film from the stands. While his actions certainly appear contrary to the spirit of the rules, there is at least a non-frivolous argument that he indeed found and exploited a loophole in the rulebook. This is being referred to as the “gray areas” defense. Michigan reportedly told the NCAA the school would not rely on the gray areas defense, but has raised it in proceedings with the Big Ten Conference (discussed below).

The evidence presented to the NCAA largely consisted of proof that he had purchased tickets to a number of games of Michigan opponents and paid various acquaintances or associates to record the games and upload the footage to a Google drive or similar cloud storage platform. He then presumably used the recordings to try and decode signals. Media has described this as a “vast network” of spies, of which Stalions was the “mastermind.” It’s just like SPECTER from James Bond.

Michigan’s coaches all deny knowing about any of these activities and to date there is no evidence to the contrary, so it appears Stalions was doing this all on his own. Notably, Devin Gardner (who played at M from 2010 to 2014) remembers Stalions being at every Michigan away game during his career (Stalions has only been on staff since 2021). Stalions was also reported to have written a 600-page “manifesto” on his plan to “take over Michigan Football.” So that’s the kind of person we are dealing with here. Nevertheless, NCAA rules make the head coach responsible for any violations that occur within a program.

In the meantime, a separate story broke about a person resembling Stalions having appeared on the CMU sidelines, wearing officially-issued CMU coaching staff gear, during a game against Michigan State in September (Michigan did not have a game that day). CMU declared an investigation but has been unable to identify the person. It appears most likely that it was indeed Stalions, and that he was present on the CMU sidelines at the invitation of CMU’s coaching staff. (This is just an unconfirmed theory, but seems more likely than the possibility that an unknown person resembling Stalions infiltrated the CMU sidelines, acquired official staff apparel, and remained there for an entire game while in close proximity to CMU staff and coaches). Notably, CMU’s coach, Jim McElwain, was briefly on Harbaugh’s staff during Stalions’ tenure—so it is possible he may have known Stalions and invited him or otherwise permitted him to be present on the sidelines, whether to moonlight as a CMU sign decoder or for some other purpose.

Michigan suspended Stalions immediately upon notice of the NCAA investigation, and Stalions later resigned. FWIW, he stated that none of the Michigan coaches knew about his recording activity. To my knowledge he has not made any statement about the alleged CMU sideline appearance. 

With the NCAA investigation was proceeding, a group of rival Big Ten coaches and athletic directors urged Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti to impose some immediate punishment on Jim Harbaugh over the sign-stealing scandal. It is unclear what all schools were involved in this campaign, though reports suggest it was a majority of Big Ten schools and that the Michigan State AD was the most vocal proponent. 

Big Ten rules provide that, in the case of alleged NCAA violations, the conference must cooperate with the NCAA investigation and not launch its own separate investigation, so as to avoid the possibility of inconsistent outcomes. Big Ten rules also provide that the conference may impose additional penalties on a member institution “subsequent to” the completion of the NCAA’s investigation. Therefore, the Big Ten was not authorized to investigation or punish Michigan for the alleged NCAA rule violations (at least until the NCAA investigation concluded). 

The Big Ten also has a separate “sportsmanship policy,” under which the league may impose punishments either on individuals who engage in unsportsmanlike activity that are not NCAA rule violations, or on member institutions for such conduct. This policy has traditionally been used to punish minor transgressions, such as bad-mouthing officials after a game.

Michigan communicated to Pettiti its belief that the conference needed to await the outcome of the NCAA investigation before taking any action. Michigan also retained legal counsel in anticipation of potentially needing to sue the Big Ten in case an unwarranted penalty were to be attempted. 

Meanwhile, a series of additional media stories broke which revealed that numerous Big Ten schools had colluded to decode Michigan’s signs and shared the decoded signs with each other. The schools involved in this collusion included, at minimum, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Purdue. Reports then surfaced that the Big Ten was considering levying a fine on Michigan, suggesting the controversy was winding down.

It was not to be. On November 10, Tony Petitti invoked the sportsmanship policy  to suspend Jim Harbaugh for the remainder of the regular season. The Big Ten did not announce the suspension until Friday afternoon (Nov. 10), a national holiday, after Michigan had left Ann Arbor for its game against Penn State.

Michigan’s lawyers filed a lawsuit in Washtenaw Circuit Court on Friday evening and moved for a “temporary restraining order” (or “TRO”) that would have stayed the suspension of Harbaugh long enough for the court to hold a hearing on the legality of the Big Ten’s suspension. While Michigan makes a number of arguments in its complaint, the key allegations are: (i) that the sportsmanship policy does not apply to this case because it involves NCAA rules violations and the NCAA investigation is ongoing, (ii) the sportsmanship policy also does not apply because this is not the type of violation for which the sportsmanship policy has traditionally been used, (iii) even if the sportsmanship policy applies, it only authorizes penalties against the individual who did the offending conduct (i.e., Stalions) or institutions (i.e., Michigan) and cannot be used to suspend a head coach for the transgressions of a staff member, and (iii) even under the sportsmanship policy, Michigan was entitled to an opportunity to defend itself against the allegations but wasn’t provided any such opportunity. 

For reasons that remain unclear, the Washtenaw Circuit Court Judge did not grant the TRO on Friday or Saturday, so Michigan was forced to play Penn State without Harbaugh on the sidelines. Instead, the court set a hearing in the matter for Friday, Nov. 17. The court will determine at or shortly after that hearing whether to enter a “preliminary injunction” permitting Harbaugh to coach the remainder of this season or not.

To secure the preliminary injunction, Michigan and Harbaugh must show three basic elements: (i) that they will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of the injunction; (ii) that they are likely to prevail on the merits of the case; (iii) that the harm to Michigan and Harbaugh without the injunction outweighs the harm to the Big Ten if the injunction is entered and turns out not to have been warranted. The court can also consider whether the injunction would be in the public interest, though this is sort of an optional factor here.

Michigan should easily meet the irreparable harm and “balance of equities” factors. Irreparable harm basically means an injury for which money damages cannot properly compensate; denying Harbaugh the ability to coach his team and denying the players the benefit of their coach are clearly harms that are difficult if not impossible to quantify in economic terms. And if the harm to Michigan and Harbaugh is greater than the effect on the Big Ten; were the injunction later found to be improper, the Big Ten could always suspend Michigan’s coach in the future. 

Therefore, the injunction is likely to come down to the “likelihood of success” factor. Michigan will argue the Big Ten had no authority to impose the suspension on Harbaugh in the manner it did, if at all. The Big Ten will probably argue that the sportsmanship policy gives Petitti the authority to punish Michigan for stealing signs and to determine what the punishment is. Though Petitti’s ability to do this is hardly clear under the sportsmanship policy, the Big Ten will likely contend that it’s a permissible interpretation of the policy and the court should defer to the Big Ten Commissioner’s own interpretation of the league rules. 

Notably, substantially every disinterested athlete and coach to express an opinion on the impact of sign-stealing has stated that pretty much every football team tries to steal opponents' signs--even though the benefit to be gained therefrom is insignificant. Michigan, for its part, has been without its designated sign decoder for three games now and is undefeated in those contests.

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