Put on your big pants and play by the rules
I’ve been following the Michigan football drama for weeks and have refrained from providing commentary for several reasons. First, I wanted to see how this sign-stealing case would develop, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve conducted media training for Michigan football student-athletes several times over the years and felt hesitant to jump in so early.
But this weekend was more than I could handle. So I’m weighing in to say I’ve had enough. Michigan’s vaunted football program, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation, needs to stop the drama and engage in some serious thinking about the impact of cheating on their program, their reputation, and, above all, their integrity.
As background, Ann Arbor’s football program was accused of stealing signs, and a Big Ten investigation into the matter found enough evidence to ban Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh for several games. What is signal theft? All teams spend time reviewing video and television broadcasts of rivals’ matches with the aim of assessing their playing as well as deciphering their signals to use when the teams meet. This is, according to college football rules, a legal activity through which entire divisions are built in places like Michigan, Ohio State and Georgia.
What is illegal is Signal theftwhich can be accomplished in two ways: by having a staff member attend future opponents’ matches – usually in disguise, to John le Carré – or eavesdropping on opponents using electronics. The rationale behind banning signal theft is entirely reasonable: spying is expensive and gives a huge advantage to larger, wealthier programs. This is why the NCAA banned the practice years ago.
At the center of the controversy is the mysterious character of Connor Stallions, a football analyst with the Wolverines and a retired US Marine captain. He is the agent who was “created” by the rival football team he watched at their matches – undercover and undercover. But the person who has to take responsibility at Michigan, again in accordance with established NCAA guidelines, is head coach Harbaugh, who has flatly denied having any knowledge or involvement in the sign-stealing. He has it noFor the record, he denied this happened.
Sorry coach, it doesn’t matter. Rules, as they say, are rules. But the Wolverine Nation doesn’t have any of them – namely, rules. Players, coaches, fans and alumni have agreed that this is a “Michigan versus the world” world they have to live in now, so they circled the wagons to outside voices and agreed to shower their team with unconditional love. In the past and in other contexts, I have praised the “us against the world” tactic as one of the best tools an effective leader can use to mobilize and motivate his team. I wrote about this type of “chip” here a few weeks ago. The point is that for a chip to work, it can be real or largely manufactured; But Michigan’s chip is a self-deception and just faulty thinking.
I hope that by the time they finish reading this article, written by someone who has raved about the program and its staff, Michigan’s advocates will have changed their minds.
The thing that really sticks with me is the recurring phrase: “Everyone is doing it, so why should we be punished?” truly? This is the best you can come up with – a first-rate excuse to which my mother always responded: “Well, if everyone jumps off a cliff, will you do it too?”
When I tried this on my mom, her response usually ended the discussion there and then. Right off the bat, there are two reasons I can come up with that would give Michigan sycophants pause. First, as mentioned earlier, stealing signals is against the rules for good reason: the practice creates a less level playing field, which hurts competition, because many universities cannot afford to set up an in-house spy agency. Second, not following the rules gives the cheater a competitive advantage. If not, why did the Stallions team and the team Wolverine worked with go to so much trouble.
So, Michigan broke the rule to gain an advantage. In this way, they are like the man who drives his car in the breakdown lane during a busy traffic day in order to “beat the system.” Other cheaters may join in, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing right.
I know a lot of Michiganders and love a lot of them. This behavior must offend you. Here’s what to do. If you’re a player or coach, don’t talk much about overcoming adversity that you’re the author of. And if you’re a fan, stop pointing fingers at your hated rival in Columbus, against whom you still hold a 60-51-6 advantage.
Put on your big pants and play by the rules. Winning seems much better that way.
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(tags for translation) Michigan Wolverines