Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines against Minnesota. Oct 7, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts during the second quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the stranger twists in the ongoing conversation about stolen signs in college football came with Tuesday’s ESPN report from Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren that Michigan had “sent documents to the Big Ten that the school believes show three conference teams engaged in communication about the Wolverines’ signals in 2022.” And that report has now led to notable takes, including Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel arguing that those schools “cheated as much as Michigan.”

The Wolverines themselves are facing NCAA and Big Ten investigations over former staffer Connor Stalions’ alleged complex in-person advance scouting and sign-stealing scheme. And the claims in the ESPN story here don’t directly relate to that. Rather, the story indicates claims that someone at Ohio State shared Michigan offensive signals with someone at Purdue ahead of the Boilermakers’ 2022 Big Ten title game clash with the Wolverines, while someone at Rutgers did the same on the defensive side.

This follows a report from Larry Lage of The Associated Press Monday on further sign-stealing. There, Lage wrote that “A former employee at a Big Ten football program said Monday it was his job to steal signs and he was given details from multiple conference schools before his team played Michigan to compile a spreadsheet of play-calling signals used by the Wolverines last year.”

And Lage’s story mentioned that the employee shared documents with Michigan, and that other Big Ten staffers also shared information with the Wolverines about sign-stealing against Michigan. So Wetzel’s take Wednesday in Yahoo’s Read and React newsletter comes amidst all that context. But it’s still interesting to see just how far he goes in equating the alleged actions from other schools with the alleged actions from Stalions.

Here are some key quotes from that piece:

In the end, they both stole, or participated in the stealing of, the same thing — information on opponents’ play signals in an effort to secure an advantage.

…Forget even what or when the punishments should be.

Whatever it is, just make it even, because the actions of Connor Stalions and the actions that Ohio State, Rutgers and Purdue allegedly engaged in are the exact same thing.

…Even if Ohio State and Rutgers acquired Michigan signs via NCAA-legal game film or during game action, it doesn’t matter. Purdue didn’t do that work. The Boilermakers received stolen signs from advanced scouting. They cheated as much as Michigan.

…Mostly they listened to football coaches who view one kind of advanced scouting as gamesmanship, and another as a kind of crime. The coaches’ reasoning? Sending around stolen signs and game plans is common practice, so they don’t care. What Connor Stalions did is apparently not so common, so they did care.

…Real leadership would have known about all the advanced scouting and stolen signs pinging into email boxes across the league each week. They would have thought through the intricacies of the situation. They’d know better than to, in effect, let a Wall Street fraudster say the real criminal is the subway purse snatcher.

…But the same crime is still the same crime, and if anyone took a moment to do their actual job, they’d realize it.

Calling this “the same crime” and “the exact same thing” is certainly a take. And, thus far at least, it’s not a majority-held one. As the ESPN story above indicates, “It’s unknown whether the signal sharing between league teams violates the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy or any NCAA rules.”

There’s no rule blocking stealing signs in-person during a game against an opponent, or from NCAA-legal game film. So the rule question would be about if there are specific rules prohibiting the exchange of that information with other teams, or if that could be considered to violate broader and less specific provisions such as the “actions offensive to the integrity of the competition” mentioned in the Big Ten sportsmanship policy. Meanwhile, Stalions’ alleged scheme as described in media reports did appear to violate a specific NCAA rule against in-person advance scouting (although some argue that section is only applicable to the spelled-out categories of coaches and managers listed in 11.02 to 11.05). Here’s that language from the current NCAA handbook, bylaw 11.6.1:

NCAA bylaw 11.6.1.

And the specific rule banning videotaping of signals (which has been claimed as something Stalions paid at least some people to attend games and do, by one of those people) comes from the NCAA football handbook:

The NCAA’s 2023 football rule book prohibits “any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel.” Using an electronic device to record signals would fall under the category of prohibited field equipment.

Wetzel has a point that these two approaches could possibly produce similar outcomes. (It’s not proven that they’re “the same” outcome, though; it’s unclear what percentage of the signs were stolen and passed along in either scheme, it’s unclear just how much sign-stealing of any sort affects games, and teams can take countermeasure, as TCU did ahead of playing Michigan in a national semifinal last year.) And he’s right that there are ways where the information obtained from Ohio State and Rutgers could even be superior to the information obtained from Stalions’ alleged scheme. But calling this “the same crime” and saying that these schools “cheated just as much as Michigan” is quite a bold claim, especially as no one has yet pointed to where the alleged Ohio State and Rutgers information-sharing is specifically prohibited by rule (while the alleged Michigan activities are definitively contrary to the specific advance scouting rule).

The entire point of sports, and of other games, is that they’re contests conducted based on an agreed-upon set of rules. Those rules can be whatever the parties agree upon, and they can change (as the history of football certainly shows, with major changes including the implementation of the forward pass). And sign-stealing (or, more generally, information stealing) in particular is something that’s shown up in many sports, and something that very rarely receives a comprehensive ban. Instead, particular kinds of information stealing either get banned explicitly or quietly, with no bans for other kinds of actions along these lines.

And the real scandals come when a team crosses a specific line in a notable way. The recent Intentional Balk: Baseball’s Thin Line Between Innovation and Cheating (by baseball historians Dan Levitt and Mark Armour) chapter on a century-plus of sign-stealing there has a great look at that, including how MLB specifically decided not to ban sign-stealing at several points. And it helps explain why last decade’s Houston Astros’ scandal received more attention and more severe punishment from MLB than other teams’ actions at the same time or in the past, with several specific rules violations there that weren’t found in other cases.

Not everything dubbed “sign-stealing” is equal or similar. And we’ve seen that in football as well, with the 2016 “WakeyLeaks” scandal (involving Wake Forest radio analyst Tommy Elrod leaking plays to opponents) having a much larger impact than other things dubbed sign-stealing. That scandal had a notable crossover to the Stalions one, too, as it was clearly a one-way trade; these alleged conversations between coaches about opponents’ signs could go both ways and benefit both teams, while Stalions’ plans were just for the benefit of his school.

It’s certainly possible that the alleged actions from Ohio State, Rutgers, and Purdue here provided as comprehensive sign information for this one game as Stalions and Michigan allegedly obtained (for that game and for others). But that’s not proven yet. And it’s not yet proven that those schools broke any particular rule. So it will be interesting to see what more information comes out there. And it will be interesting to see if the Big Ten and the NCAA feel as Wetzel does, that this is “the same crime” and that these schools “cheated just as much as Michigan.” But from the details provided so far, that isn’t necessarily the case.

[Yahoo Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.