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Michigan's Sign-Stealing Scandal Is Just Another Symptom of the NCAA's Failure to Adapt

Between NIL, the transfer portal, and sign stealing, the NCAA is showing its ineptitude to govern big time college football more by the day

The biggest story in college football this year should be about the product on the field. But it isn’t. This season we have seen fascinating play from Oregon, Florida State, Texas, Ohio State, and Michigan. But it is the last team on that list, Michigan, that has dominated the headlines for reasons outside of the exploits of its players. The university is currently embroiled in a sign stealing scandal that has led to the suspension of coach Jim Harbaugh from the team’s remaining regular season schedule. The accusations fall back to a former staffer, Connor Stalions, who bought tickets to opposing teams' games to know what signals the sideline used to be able to give Michigan an edge when they played said teams.

Many people have written articles and spoken words on podcasts about this situation from a variety of angles. Some have cited Michigan's brazen tactics, while others have pointed out that sign stealing is industry practice. But the more important factor in all of this, is why sign stealing is used in advanced scouting of opponents to begin with. The reason is that the NCAA doesn’t allow for sideline to helmet communication devices like we see in the NFL. It is yet another example of the NCAA being behind the curve of the sports trends and ultimately looking foolish in the process.

Reading the Room

Paying athletes in college football has been a way of life for decades. One of my favorite ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries is “Pony Excess”, which chronicles the violations of the 1980s SMU football program that would pay players to join their team over the competition. Big time college football has long surpassed the student athlete dream that the NCAA has sold us for years. These schools frequently fill up stadiums close to and sometimes upwards of 100,000 fans every Saturday. Schools like Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, and LSU often fill their massive stadiums to capacity and then some. These fans also buy merchandise, with over $4.6B of annual revenue from sales of branded apparel.

Those merchandise sales numbers are in line with what the NFL sells annually, which takes away any suggestion that college football is truly an amateur operation. It is safe to say that the majority of the college football watching public accepted the fact that a player excelling in the MAC or the Sun Belt was not the same galaxy as a player in the Big 10 and the SEC. The players at the highest levels of the sports were being paid in some way or another, it was an accepted reality by everyone but the NCAA.

The standard line by the NCAA was that players didn't need to be paid because the scholarship to a college degree was payment enough. A 4 year degree at a school like the University of Michigan costs around $300K. Even if we were to take the NCAA’s suggestion as part of a salary, the game's best players are still underpaid when one considers the value that high profile players bring to their universities. These players sell merchandise, put fans in the stands, and increase a school's general visibility for marketing opportunities.

It wasn't until a class action lawsuit finally pushed the NCAAs hand to adapt to the realities of their sport. The result is the current landscape of athletes that are paid through a variety of vehicles without any guardrails, leading some athletes to prioritize staying in college as opposed to jumping to the NFL since the NIL (name, image, and likeness) opportunities from college boosters seems endless. It has truly become the Wild West because the NCAA was too arrogant to think that they would ever need to implement a proper strategy. The institution avoided the reality of paying players for as long as it could and it helped to create a mess without much structure.

Transfers and Communication

Another rule that the NCAA had for years that I never understood was its policy on transferring players. When a player would transfer, he often had to sit out a year and forgo his eligibility for that season in the process (unless a redshirt was applied). The rule made no sense on the surface and was put in place to dissuade athletes from transferring due to a lack of playing time. The system was shrouded in secrecy, with different institutions having different policies and methods around admitting transfer athletes, and it was quite frankly a system that the NCAA was fine to uphold as the standard.

Ultimately the rules were confusing and allowed schools to exert a level of ownership over student athletes, much as they did before the advent of NIL rules. This all changed in 2018 with the introduction of the transfer portal, which brought a level of transparency to the process of a player transferring and minimized the penalty on the athlete for deciding to switch schools. But much like the NIL rules, it was executed as a sort of band-aid to the decades-long scab that was the previous rule, creating de facto free agency in college football.

Both of these occurrences can be viewed as reactionary tactics by the NCAA to only adapt to the changing landscape of the sport after the damage was done. Instead of a nuanced approach to paying athletes and allowing them a freedom to transfer, chaos has ensued and it all falls back to the way that the NCAA conducts business, specifically in its lack of understanding the sheer size of its football business. And it appears that Michigan’s sign stealing scandal is the latest side effect that is the disease of the NCAA.

The NFL has used in-helmet communication for years. It has done so with great success, with players often mentioning how useful the technology is to them on the field, especially in an age of no huddle offenses that operate with a lot of tempo. The need to use signs to communicate plays to the quarterback is archaic at best. Doing so just because some schools may not be able to afford in-helmet communication devices simply just misses the point that the NCAA is truly governing over two different sports but masquerading them as one.

The lower level of college football, where schools like Akron and Western Kentucky operate, is filled with players that will likely move on to other careers outside of football. Akron, to use the example, has only had 17 players ever drafted into the NFL since the event began in 1941. The University of Alabama, by contrast, has had 401 players drafted into the NFL. The type of players going to one school versus the other are simply not in the same realm. The top levels of college football, where Michigan and Georgia operate, are in essence pro leagues utilizing the big brand that their colleges have amassed over decades. The NCAA continues to miss this reality in the way that it governs the universities that it oversees. Michigan is not the first school to challenge its archaic rules and be vilified for it, and it certainly will not be the last as long as the NCAA operates under its current system.

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