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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
and Charles Curtis

The Big Ten suspended Jim Harbaugh: The Michigan sign-stealing scandal, explained

Welcome to FTW Explains, a guide to catching up on and better understanding stuff going on in the world. Are you trying to figure out why Jim Harbaugh just got suspended and the whole thing with the Michigan sign-stealing scandal? We’re here to help.

Just when you thought the Michigan sign-stealing scandal couldn’t get weirder and more convoluted, you have the news that broke on Friday afternoon: The Big Ten suspended head coach Jim Harbaugh the rest of the 2023 regular season — he won’t be able to coach their final three games BUT he will be able to be at practices or other activities.

Confused? Let’s dive in:

Wait, wait, wait. What's all this about again?

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If you need a reminder, this mess stems from allegations that former Michigan football staffer Connor Stalions was involved in an elaborate sign-stealing operation, scouting potential and future Wolverines opponents in person. Stalions reportedly outsourced some of this work and hired others also to scout future opponents in person.

Previously an analyst for Michigan, Stalions resigned Friday, Nov. 3.

And Jim Harbaugh has denied having any knowledge of this alleged operation.

Isn't sign-stealing fairly common in football?

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

While stealing signs is common practice in college football and not technically against the rules, Michigan’s situation isn’t that simple. Sign stealing is allowed, but in-person scouting is not. Neither is using electronic equipment to steal signs.

More via Yahoo Sports, which first broke the news of the NCAA’s investigation on Oct. 19:

The allegation pertains to NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1, which reads: “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited,” sources say. …

Teams are normally provided extensive video footage to scout opponents. At issue, according to sources, is whether Michigan used unnamed individuals to attend games of both scheduled opponents and possible College Football Playoff opponents in an effort to gather information on the signs they use to call both offensive and defensive plays.

Sign stealing is not technically prohibited and has a long and colorful history as part of the game. Scouting opponents in person has been prohibited since 1994.

Isn't the NCAA investigating this? And is it right for the Big Ten to punish Michigan before that's finished?

(AP Photo/Abbie Parr, File)

Maybe, maybe not. They’re different entities, but if not for pressure from other programs inside the Big Ten, it’s possible that the conference would not have handed down a punishment so quickly.

ESPN’s Desmond Howard — who’s far from the most objective analyst when it comes to his alma mater — made a reasonable point about this Friday. He said something like this would never happen if we were talking about the SEC and Nick Saban, explaining on ESPN’s Get Up:

“The commissioner [Tony Pettiti] is actually treating them unfairly. He’s circumventing due process by the NCAA. That’s why. You know, Greg, this would never happen in the SEC. Are you telling me they would do this to Nick Saban and Alabama? Hell no.”

And he’s kind of right. It is hard to imagine a conference moving a move before the NCAA, even if the NCAA’s investigation will surely last longer. The SEC would probably wait for the NCAA to do something and then decide if it wants to tack on more reprimands.

So is Michigan going to respond in some way, legally speaking?

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

As far as we know, the NCAA is still in the middle of its investigation into sign-stealing allegations against Michigan. The school previously threatened legal action against the Big Ten if it punished the program before a full investigation was completed, especially as the conference faces pressure from other programs, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Michigan is arguing that the Big Ten is overstepping its authority and can’t reprimand Harbaugh under the conference’s sportsmanship policy if a formal decision hasn’t been made about a rules violation. It outlined all of this for first-year Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti in a 10-page letter, which also “noted that unlike NCAA bylaws, the conference does not have a rule holding a coach accountable for any misdeeds within a program.”

More from the AP’s report:

The NCAA is investigating Michigan, too, but its process is slower and is likely to stretch well past the season. Big Ten’s rules allow for swifter action and coaches and athletic directors in the league have been pushing Commissioner Tony Petitti to discipline Michigan under the conference’s bylaws that cover sportsmanship and competitive integrity. …

Michigan and its supporters say the conference is rushing to judgment and Petitti, a former Major League Baseball executive who took the job six months ago, is being pushed to act in a way not supported by league bylaws.

Under the Big Ten bylaws, Petitti can deal out a two-game suspension and up to a $10,000 fine, the AP noted.

Why is Harbaugh still being held accountable if the Big Ten doesn’t have a rule specifying that? A possible answer, via The Athletic‘s Nicole Auerbach:

In their response to the suspension, the Wolverines also said they “intend to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect.” The statement read in part:

“By taking this action at this hour, the Commissioner is personally inserting himself onto the sidelines and altering the level playing field that he is claiming to preserve. And, doing so on Veteran’s Day a court holiday – to try to thwart the University from seeking immediate judicial relief is hardly a profile in impartiality. To ensure fairness in the process, we intend to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect.”

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