Legal opinion of UM sign stealing

IANAL, but damn near everyone else in my family is. The concensus opinion is that there is a good deal of rationality here. The author makes the point, which I consider well-founded, that rules grounded in establishing financial parity have not withstood judicial anti-trust scrutiny recently and that if the B10 and NCAA make a big deal out of this it may backfire on them in a big way.


I’m not sure the Big Ten commissioner has the stones to take action, and if/when the NCAA does, Michigan will bring in more legal talent than the NCAA can afford.

A similar rule is the one limiting the size of the coaching staff, which has led to the workaround where the wealthier programs, such as Alabama, hire a fleet of former head coaches and coordinators as “analysts”, who are supposedly there to support the official coaching staff with information, analysis, game planning, etc., but that are not allowed to engage with the players directly. Frost got in trouble with this rule when his special teams analyst was caught working with the kickers.

As for the scouting rule, you can make some argument that it is trying to prevent “cheating” in some way, though the only actual violation by Stalion was traveling to attend the game, not the sign-stealing itself. But the rule limiting the size of the coaching staff lacks even that fig leaf to hide behind. The rule clearly doesn’t benefit the players and it is easy to make the case that it harms them by denying them access to resources that would further their careers. It is just as much in violation of anti-trust and labor laws as the players compensation case, if not more, because there was never a doubt that this is an employee-employer relationship and that the rule primarily constitutes a restraint on the market for coaches.

I think that the only reason it hasn’t yet come to court is that most of the analysts who are getting these jobs are still angling for first-class coaching jobs in the future and don’t want to rock the boat and the ones who may not be positioning themselves for those jobs have no motive to fight the restriction.

However, if the NCAA tried to enforce the rule with any sort of serious punishment, I think it would be rapidly challenged in court and easily overturned. Instead, the industry will probably continue to go along with a mostly “see no evil” approach to violations, where the only time it comes up are cases where someone with an axe to grind calls it out and forces some action to be taken.

So sign stealing is no big deal….ask the New England Patriots and Houston Astros about that and how it worked out for them :face_with_spiral_eyes:

Well, you wanna talk about not having stones, the Commissioner of Baseball is the poster boy for that. Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose and DIED!

I also though the Patriots got off a lot easier than the Saints did. The Commissioner probably didn’t want to take on Robert Kraft again.

My understanding is that in addition to having a scout at the opponent’s games the Michigan spies were filming the signs, and that’s a more serious violation.

But as I wrote on the WSJ comments section, the NCAA is a lumbering creaking dinosaur and like the dinosaurs of old is not likely to survive the change in the environment.

It’s not clear to whom you were responding in this thread.

But while my own post didn’t refer to the sign-stealing allegations at all, I will say that it is important to remember that Michigan is not being accused of stealing signs, per se. They are being accused of traveling to other games in person to scout games (and of using electronic means to record those games). The article that Paul links to in the original post points out that the travel rule may very well be unlawful.

As for the sign-stealing aspect itself, anybody following the story has seen by now the counter-accusation that other Big Ten schools colluded to pass on their accumulated information about Michigan’s signs to the Purdue staff before last year’s championship game. Apparently, no rules were broken by doing that, but if we are going to work up a moral outrage over which was worse, was it:

  1. Traveling (apparently on your own dime) in person to scout an opponent, or
  2. Multiple institutions working together to give an unfair advantage to one team in your conference over another team in your conference before the most important game of the conference calendar?

If you are the new commissioner of the conference, it is awfully hard to turn your back on #2 while dropping the hammer on #1.

#2 is also interesting in the context of the film of Stalion on the Central Michigan sideline in their game against Michigan State while wearing CMU visitor bench credentials and CMU staff gear. One interpretation is that Stalion somehow tricked his way onto the sideline. Another is that the CMU staff were well aware of who Stalion was and was willing to accommodate him, even knowing it would be to the detriment of MSU. After all, he spent much of his time standing directly next to some of the CMU coaches on the sideline. Were they really unaware he was there?

If so, we’ve got Central Michigan colluding with Michigan against Michigan State and we’ve got Ohio State and Rutgers colluding with Purdue against Michigan. There are no saints or martyrs in this sordid affair. There is an awful lot of skullduggery going on, even if some of it is not against any rules.

Fortunately, I am confident that the problem will ultimately be resolved the same way that the MLB did it. Allowing electronic communications from the sideline to the huddle will eliminate most of this mess. Apparently, the momentum towards allowing this was blunted a half-dozen years ago by less wealthy schools who didn’t want the cost, which brings us back to the Yale article in the original post making the case that the travel rule about scouting was passed in 1994 only in order to cut costs. Nobody right now can legally use electronic means to communicate plays, apparently to avoid costs that some high schools are already paying now. Both of these rules are likely to be eliminated soon or be made irrelevant. Schools will be able to implement electronic means to communicate plays (with Trev Alberts’ enthusiastic endorsement), eliminating pretty much the only incentive to scout in person in an age where all games involve a full film exchange that can be handled much more efficiently by staffers sitting in the office annotating video than by sending someone on the road in the stands with his phone camera. And if they do want to do the latter, why even bother to stop them?

To be clear, I do not like Michigan and I am perfectly happy for them to get taken down a peg or two. I grew up with the image of Nebraska being a clean program that did not skirt the rules and I still want the school to hold up those ideals and scorn those schools that appear to encourage a culture of “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught and besides everybody else is doing it!” (See the dead period contacts that Harbaugh self-suspended himself for and then lied about to the NCAA investigating committee.) For that matter, I scorn those schools going out of their way to put the thumb on the scale of games that don’t involve them, even though they are not breaking the rules by doing so. Perhaps we need to make more of an effort to quash that. But I am having a hard time working up much outrage over this particular Michigan scandal.

Now those Michigan fans who delude themselves that a team that was lucky to beat Appalachian State or Ryan Leaf and Washington State in the Rose Bowl was somehow more deserving of the national title than the team that crushed Payton Manning and Volunteers…

Steve I wasn’t being specific; just making the point that all these rules can be suggestions or not depending on who brings the hammer down and when as you make clear below. Scouting has been done forever in both basketball and football, but not instant electronic recording of the sidelines correlated to play selection as in the case of football. Nonetheless, I would posit that the rule regarding finances was indeed intended to limit sign stealing as well since if you can’t attend you can’t very well steal signs. But that is a circular argument and likely if a team or someone is good enough it probably doesn’t matter either way, eg Mariano Rivera throwing his cutter essentially every pitch or Jim Brown running off left tackle repeatedly. I agree the Michigan issue is minor since, in my opinion, they are very good but that doesn’t change the fact they broke the rules….twice recently. Also, does the scouting rule apply to basketball as well as football ?

“Scouting has been done forever in both basketball and football, but not instant electronic recording of the sidelines correlated to play selection as in the case of football.”

In a world where almost everyone is carrying a high-speed, high resolution camera in their pocket or bag and almost every move we make outside our homes is captured at some point by a camera or tracker (often our own phones) having a specific rule to disallow recording someone signalling the play in is just dumb. In the intel world we consider this open-source. It takes some effort to collect it, but it’s not hidden in any way. THis rule makes about as much sense as my doctor insisting I FAX them a damn request for something and not email, even though email is a lot more secure and trackable than a fax.

The NCAA always seems to be 30 years behind on technology issues, they’ll probably recognize the existence of cell phone cameras in 2037.

Most teams used to send plays in with players, doing them with signs and hand signals from the sidelines became more common during the fast tempo offense movement and that made sign stealing possible. The obvious solution is the one the NFL and many high schools already use, that 122 year old technology called radio.

Have people seen the AT&T commercial about the helmet screens developed for Gallaudet University’s football team? I wonder how those handle hard hits?

Harbaugh has been removed from coaching the last 3 games.

Paul you are right….that’s why helmet mics are not bullet proof either, just simpler to use than sideline “semaphore”. But, being in intel you know you can also track the tracker if you decide to, but that’s another issue. The answer in football is to find a qb like Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas and have them call their own plays…that’s pretty much the reason the Patriots have six Super Bowl flags hanging in Gillette stadium. That also puts scouting where it belongs…looking for patterns and player assessment. Would also assume sign stealing in real time is less helpful than when done prospectively so there is a difference there as well as different modalities are applied depending. Used to be the base runner on second was the sign stealer. Or maybe a savvy third base coach…don’t remember much sign stealing in football….we sure have come a long way since then haven’t we.
P.S. Actually, it’s best to talk to your doctor directly rather than fax or E-mail, no HIPPA violations that way. :nerd_face: