New Wrinkles Emerge in the Michigan Football Cheating Allegations

AP Photo/Abbie Parr, File

Last week, we reported on the recent allegations that the University of Michigan’s football program has engaged in stealing the signs of upcoming opponents in order to gain an advantage over them. The accusations came as the Wolverines are dealing with the fallout of COVID-19-era recruiting violations, and the cheating allegations center on one staffer whose job it was to steal signals.

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This week brings new developments in this unfolding case. Media outlets are reporting that Connor Stalions, the staffer in question, bought tickets to nearly a dozen other games to scout teams’ signals. Nicole Auerbach and Austin Meek of The Athletic wrote on Monday that Stalions purchased tickets to watch seven of the Wolverines’ Big Ten opponents over the past three seasons.

“Purchasing tickets to the game of an upcoming opponent does not violate NCAA rules, but using those tickets to scout other teams would be a violation of the NCAA rule prohibiting in-person, on-campus scouting,” Auerbach and Meek report, adding, “Multiple sources within the Big Ten expressed frustration with Stalions’ alleged behavior and the elaborate nature of his efforts, which coaches believe goes far beyond legal in-game sign-stealing and its subsequent gamesmanship.”

On Tuesday, ESPN expanded the scope of the story, reporting that Stalions also bought tickets to games outside the Big Ten in order to scout other teams’ signals; additionally, there’s evidence that Stalions went to even more Big Ten games. Pete Thamel and Mark Schlabach wrote that “sources told ESPN on Tuesday that he bought tickets for games at four schools outside of the Big Ten that were either in College Football Playoff contention or playing contenders.”

“There also is record of Stalions buying tickets to the 2021 and 2022 SEC title games, sources told ESPN,” Thamel and Schlabach report. “The tickets to the SEC title games were purchased on the secondary market, according to sources.”

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Schools across the country are checking ticket purchase records for Stalions’ name. Again, it’s one thing for a team staffer to buy a ticket to watch the competition, but it’s what the staffer does during the game that makes the difference.

“A source told ESPN on Tuesday that the NCAA has been sent at least an hour of video evidence that shows a person sitting in a seat appearing to video the home sideline with a smartphone,” Thamel and Schlabach report. “Stalions purchased the ticket for that seat. The video is expected to be used as part of the investigation to show that electronics were used in the signal-stealing ring, according to sources.”

The Big Ten said in a statement that it “considers the integrity of competition to be of the utmost importance. Due to the ongoing nature of the NCAA investigation, the conference has no comment at this time.”

Related: Top College Football Program Faces Cheating Allegations

Other coaches have weighed in on the scandal. A reporter asked University of Colorado head coach Deion Sanders for his thoughts, and he stated that stealing signs won’t matter unless a team can back it up on the field.

“Everyone’s trying to get whatever edge they can,” Sanders said. “You could have someone’s whole game plan; they could mail it to you. You’ve still got to stop it.”

“You’ve still got to play the game,” he concluded.

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University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, whose Bulldogs were among the teams Stalions allegedly watched at the last two SEC Championship games, weighed in on the scandal during his weekly press conference.

“I had never heard of anybody going to the games to watch and film and do all that stuff that that’s going on that people are talking about,” The Athletic’s Seth Emerson reports Smart saying. “I don’t know anybody that’s ever done it. Or I’ve never been asked to do that as a young coach or known anybody to do that. I’ve never even heard of that.”

Smart and his staff put up a large white sheet to prevent others from seeing the team’s signals, and other teams do something similar. He also told the press that he didn’t suspect anything untoward when the Bulldogs played the Wolverines in the College Football Playoff semifinal game in 2021.

Smart told reporters that some instances of sign-stealing aren’t surprising, “But what they’re referencing (at Michigan) is different than stealing them. They’re talking about people to come and film on us. But we’ve tried to hide the signals, hold the calls, put signs up, do all that. But there’s nothing I remember about the Michigan game that makes me think that.”

What’s particularly shameful about all of this controversy surrounding Michigan is that the Wolverines are having an incredible season. As of this writing, Michigan sits in second place in the Associated Press Top 25 and AFCA Coaches Polls, and sports reporters, anchors, and analysts seem to be rooting for the Wolverines to win it all. The team has enough talent to succeed without resorting to cheating.

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“The investigation still has to play out, but on the surface, this is exactly the kind of thing that could compound Michigan’s NCAA troubles and land Harbaugh on the sideline again,” writes The Athletic’s Meek in a column. “Anyone who looked hard at what Stalions was doing could have seen the potential for scandal and controversy, the last thing Michigan needs as it chases a national championship.”

How this investigation will shake down remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: these players who work hard to play for the University of Michigan don’t deserve to reap the consequences that may come down from the NCAA.

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