If Commissioner Won’t Act On Michigan Sign-Stealing Scandal, Big Ten Teams Could Take Matters Into Their Own Hands
National media has ratcheted up its rhetoric about Michigan football and its sign-stealing scandal, with many prominent figured calling on the Big Ten to intervene.
The latest development, which is somehow more unbelievable than the litany of heretofore unthinkable details that had already emerged, has apparently represented the last straw for many sports media personalities. That, of course, is damning photo and video evidence of Connor Stalions, the U-M recruiting analyst at the center of the Wolverines' growing illegal-scouting controversy, ostensibly impersonating a Central Michigan staffer on the sidelines of the Chippewas' game against Michigan State in the season opener at Spartan Stadium.
Worse, Stalions seems to be donning a disguise, the effort behind which could only be described as that of a poor-man's Ethan Hunt. Worse yet, Stalions and his conspicuous Nike shoes stand out like a sore thumb among the Adidas-contracted CMU bench. And worst of all, it's obvious to anyone who doesn't sleep in a maize-and-blue racecar bed that Stalions' sunglasses, which are suspicious enough given the CMU at MSU game was played at night, are the kind that house a surreptitious camera, a detail betrayed by a blue light next to the lens visible here.
Among the chorus of sports-media voices imploring the Big Ten to take unilateral action against Michigan was Paul Finebaum, who's earned a reputation as one of the most important people in college football — and the personification of SEC football in the South — over the course of his 40-plus-year career.
"The fact that the Big Ten has not done anything yet is inexcusable," Finebaum said Wednesday on ESPN's 'Get Up.' "That's the only mechanism to stop this train. And quite frankly, a lot of people think it should be stopped.
"It's up to Tony Pettiti, the new Big ten commissioner, to step in. They're the only people with jurisdiction."
Big Ten Is Weighing Its Options
Big Ten coaches held a nearly one-hour conference call with Pettiti Wednesday night, urging him to take action against Michigan. U-M coach Jim Harbaugh was not allowed to participate in that part of the call. ESPN reported that the discussion was "intense and emotional."
"Collectively, the coaches want the Big Ten to act -- right now," said a source familiar with the call. "What are we waiting on? We know what happened."
The coaches in the Big Ten laid out to Petitti, who was hired in April, just how distinct of a schematic advantage Michigan has held the last three years by illegally obtaining the opposition's signals ahead of time, as has been alleged.
Coaches used words like "tainted," "fraudulent" and "unprecedented" on the call to describe Michigan's signal-stealing scheme, as has been alleged. Much of the call, according to sources, was coaches explaining to Petitti both how it worked and how it impacted them and their programs.
"People don't understand the seriousness of it," said another source. "How it truly impacted the game plan. To truly know if it's a run or a pass, people don't understand how much of an advantage that was for Michigan."
There was anger interspersed throughout the call, as one source described the sentiment as: "Every game they played is tainted."
What can the Big Ten do about this, exactly? According to ESPN, the league could mete out punishment to Michigan and/or its staff under its Sportsmanship Policy. Pettiti has the authority to unilaterally enact discipline for violations at the so-called "standard level," meaning the commissioner can personally hand out fines until the $10,000 mark and issue suspensions for up to two games. Anything beyond that, though, requires approval from a group of representatives from throughout the Big Ten, which comprises the executive committee.
Is There Any Recourse If The Big Ten Elects To Stay Out Of It?
Will the Big Ten intervene? Per ESPN's reporting, it sounds like coaches around the conference are skeptical.
The coaches acknowledged the reality on the call that the NCAA enforcement timeline won't impact Michigan this season, as the Wolverines are 8-0 and No. 3 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. And that's one reason the Big Ten coaches called on action from the Big Ten.
Sources described Petitti as listening carefully to the coaches, but not tipping his hand in what direction he may go. Sources expressed curiosity as to whether the Big Ten is truly interested in taking action or just listening to coaches so they can be heard.
"I don't think the Big Ten understood how upset everyone was," said another source. "The tenor of the call was asking the Big Ten to show leadership -- the conference and the presidents. An unprecedented violation of the rules would require unprecedented action from the Big Ten."
If Pettiti and the league elect to abstain and, like the College Football Playoff Committee, defer to the NCAA, Big Ten teams demanding action against Michigan would be out of options.
Or would they?
Two weeks ago when news of the U-M scandal first broke, it was reported that the Big Ten contacted teams who are yet scheduled to face the Wolverines this season to inform them of the matter. At that time, Michigan was just a few days away from playing Michigan State. According to several reports and MSU interim head coach Harlon Barnett, the Spartans discussed with the league the possibility of canceling the game. MSU ultimately chose otherwise, but who's to say whether other teams would make that same decision?
What if Ohio State and Penn State are hellbent on making sure Harbaugh and Michigan are held to account for their widespread illicit scouting practices? It's not hard to imagine that being the case.
Now imagine Ryan Day and James Franklin, as well as other coaches and athletic administrators at OSU and PSU, being so outraged by the Big Ten's inaction that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Specifically, imagine the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions putting the conference in a pressure cooker by refusing to play their respective games against Michigan.
Given what we know about MSU considering the cancelation of their game with U-M, it could happen. Ohio State and Penn State making that threat would definitely get the Big Ten's attention. Why? Because it would be hitting the Big Ten where it matters most — in the wallet.
Michigan at Penn State is scheduled for 12 p.m. on Nov. 11, and, barring some truly improbable events, it will be a matchup of Top 10 teams. Ohio State at Michigan, which is set for 12 p.m. on Nov. 25, will be an even more titanic matchup — a rivalry clash between, at the absolute worst, the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the country to cap the regular season. Both games are slated for marquee showcasing by the Big Ten's primary TV partner, FOX, as part of its Big Noon series, the centerpiece of the conference's $7 billion media rights deal.
Losing either one of those games, let alone both, would make the Big Ten's corporate partners at FOX very upset. It would represent a loss of tens of millions of dollars by way of ad inventory that wouldn't run — the kind of loss FOX would not allow to happen without raising hell with the conference. It would be completely unprecedented, and the sheer magnitude of the financial disaster it would certainly cause would also certainly move the Big Ten's hand.
The last time something even remotely close to that happened was this past summer, when NBC realized former Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren had not delivered on a promise to schedule a primetime game for the network on Black Friday. Pettiti, under a firestorm of grief from NBC executives, had to scramble to placate its tertiary TV partner, ultimately satisfying NBC by moving Penn State at Michigan State from the Saturday after Thanksgiving to primetime on Black Friday. As added value, and a way to beg their billionaire peacock-themed benefactors for forgiveness, the Big Ten moved the game from Michigan State's campus to Ford Field in Detroit, home of the Lions, in an effort to lift the game's profile for NBC's national audience.
If those are the lengths Pettiti was willing to go to to keep the league's third-most important TV partner happy, what is he capable of doing to appease his preeminent network concern? Would he leave the comfort of fecklessness, abandoning the strategy of abdicating any disciplinary responsibility under the guise of deference to the NCAA, and impose unheard-of sanctions on Michigan football for the Wolverines' unheard-of improprieties and impudence?
Stay tuned. We just may find out.
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