Big Ten got only one thing right in cheating scandal: Not punishing the players

If the sign-stealing scandal involving the University of Michigan football program had not made your head explode yet, it did late Friday afternoon when the Big Ten suspended coach Jim Harbaugh despite acknowledging it had no evidence he had direct knowledge of impermissible conduct by a staff member.

Let me see if I have this right:

Michigan is accused of wrongdoing and later admits the misbehavior, but only to a degree. It acknowledges stealing opponents’ signs but claims ignorance about in-person recordings being used to gather information, then ostensibly says “no harm, no foul” because other conference members had stolen the Wolverines’ signs and shared them with each other before facing Michigan.

The Big Ten, feeling pressure from other conference members to act, sanctioned the university for violating the conference’s sportsmanship policy but — get this — did so by disciplining the person for whom it “has not yet received any information indicating that he was aware of the impermissible nature of the sign-stealing scheme.”


If that’s not bizarre, the discipline is. Harbaugh is precluded from attending games but not practices or other football-related events. More absurd, the suspension runs through only the final three regular-season games, which means Harbaugh would be eligible to work the sidelines if the third-ranked Wolverines reach the Big Ten Championship Game and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

I wish my parents had been that “hard” on me when I acted up.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti wants to look tough without actually being tough. This was theater, not punishment. It was talking loud but saying nothing.

Either you have the goods to take significant action or you don’t. Playing both sides should not be an option, which is what Petitti is attempting to do. I will give him this, though: He did not throw the players or the program under the bus by vacating victories or banning them from postseason play. He limited his discipline to the face of the program, the person ultimately responsible for everything associated with the team, and that’s precisely what he should have done — setting aside the issue of rushing to judgment or ignoring the claim that others were equally guilty of violating the sportsmanship policy.



Wasserman: The Big Ten’s punishment of Jim Harbaugh was sloppy, rushed and pleases nobody

I have no idea whether Harbaugh knew that Connor Stalions, a staffer who resigned Nov. 3, two weeks after Michigan suspended him with pay, was breaking rules by recording future opponents’ signs from the sideline or purchasing game tickets and paying others to do the same. That is for the NCAA to determine in its ongoing investigation, which could take a long time to conclude.

What I do know is that the players should not be collateral damage. As best we know, they had no knowledge of what was happening. Staffers and/or coaches were exclusively involved with deciphering opponents’ signs, so they alone should bear the brunt of discipline.



Suspended Jim Harbaugh is tainted, too, but this Michigan season should not be

Previously, we’ve seen the NCAA vacate victories, limit scholarships or impose bowl bans for infractions; CBS Sports reported in 2018 that 20 national championships on various levels had been vacated due to rules infractions. However, each of those involved a player(s) in some capacity, be it competing while academically ineligible or accepting improper benefits.

The decision to lean more heavily on taking away victories and championships occurred roughly two decades ago amid criticism that rules-breakers had often departed before discipline was imposed. The NCAA knew that erasing victories and titles would not wash away the actual memory of those successes, but in theory, it stained them by forever putting an asterisk next to the names of the players and teams.

Michigan’s players should not be subjected to that, particularly when the toughest part of their schedule will be post-scandal and, presumably, will not include scouting reports from Stalions. They play at No. 10 Penn State (8-1) Saturday, at Maryland (5-4) the next week, and close the regular season at home against No. 1-ranked Ohio State (9-0). Depending on those outcomes, the Wolverines could find themselves deep in the postseason.

Michigan’s place in history should not be stained if it runs the table, regardless of what the NCAA investigation turns up. The same cannot be said of Harbaugh, who should face stiff sanctions if the allegation against his staff is proved to be true. He is responsible for his program and everything that goes on in it. There is no passing the buck when you sit in his chair.



What are Big Ten schools saying about Jim Harbaugh? Our reporters discuss

Some have speculated he could jump to the NFL, but he should not find a soft landing spot there. Precedence says as much.

In 2011, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor was facing a five-game NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits in a cash-for-memorabilia scandal. Instead of remaining in Columbus, Pryor entered the NFL’s supplemental draft and was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the third round.

However, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ostensibly upheld the NCAA’s ruling and suspended Pryor for the first five games.

“I believe it is a fair conclusion that he intentionally took steps to ensure that he would be declared ineligible for further college play and would be able to enter the NFL via the supplemental draft,” Goodell said in a news release. “Taken as a whole, I found that this conduct was tantamount to a deliberate manipulation of our eligibility rules in a way that distorts the underlying principles and calls into question the integrity of those rules.”

Would Harbaugh be doing the same if the NCAA finds he is accountable for Stalions’ alleged actions, even though Stalions’ attorney, Brad Beckworth, said in a statement to The Athletic that his client had no knowledge of other staff members’ breaking NCAA rules prohibiting in-person scouting?

Added Beckworth: “Connor also wants to make it clear that, to his knowledge, neither coach Harbaugh, nor any other coach or staff member, told anyone to break any rules or were aware of improper conduct regarding the recent allegations of advanced scouting.”

The ultimate question really could come down to whether Harbaugh should have known what was happening more than whether he actually knew. That determination will be made by the NCAA, and if it decides he bears final responsibility, here’s hoping it does not penalize the players for the action, or inaction, of the coach.

Further reading

(Photo of Jim Harbaugh: Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)

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