Michigan is playing in the National Championship on Monday. Michigan cheated by recording the sidelines to steal signals of opponents. Both of those statements are true. Of course, without a little context, both of those statements do a disservice to their respective stories.
Let’s rewind: I’ve refrained from speaking about the Michigan sign-stealing controversy (which was reported on in November of 2023) for one reason, and one reason only – I thought it was dumb.
Cards on the table: I’m more of a professional sports kinda guy (granted, if we can even make that distinction anymore). I prefer the crisp, sleek, polished look of pro sports versus college. I enjoy watching the pinnacle of performance over potential. I need the year-to-year storylines and multi-generational struggles. It’s not that college can’t be fun to watch, but if I could pick one and only one, it’s pro sports by a gazillion.
With that said, the Michigan scandal still stood out as a particularly stupid and worthless story. Maybe I’m jaded, but my initial reaction to hearing about the lengths and breadths that Michigan went to record opposing sidelines was, “Isn’t everybody doing that? Isn’t every high-level college coach, whose job is basically on a timer from Day 1, doing anything and everything to get an edge?”
The short answer is yes; the long answer is yes, but there might be some exceptions as far as scale and scope. Where Michigan falls on that line is anyone’s guess. But what’s not debatable? That Michigan, unequivocally, cheated.
But consider this: these games are all televised anyway. There’s nothing to stop someone from watching a game and trying to puzzle together another team’s signals from whatever angle the broadcast provides. That’s gamesmanship, supposedly. I’m supposed to believe that recording the coaches with a camcorder is somehow a titanic moral leap from just taping a game on a Saturday afternoon. Sorry, I’m not buying that.
It’s also ridiculous that this rule even exists in the first place. Scouting has always been a part of football – not just the players, but the coaches too. The only reason it was implemented was to level the playing field between your financial minnows like Florida Atlantic and Toledo and your financial leviathans like Texas and LSU. But the reality is the playing field has never been level, and proper scouting and self-scouting could actually provide a fairly inexpensive advantage for some of these smaller schools. Either way, isn’t it time we drop the charade?
In the spirit of cards on the table, here’s another admission: I’m an Ohio State graduate. I would consider myself an Ohio State fan, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard. I wouldn’t even correct you if you dared to call it “Ohio State University” instead of “THE Ohio State University” – though you bet your ass I put that on resumés. I probably watched three or four Buckeyes games from start to finish this year.
All of this is to say, I’m biased, but I’m not completely, blindly biased. I’m a man of reason – I’m capable of at least recognizing that my initial reaction to anything Michigan-related is typically, “Suck it, losers.” It’s a flaw, and I’m not proud of it. But because I can recognize it, I can also promise you that what I’ve said and am about to say is 98.5% bias-free (and that’s pretty darn good if you ask me).
So let me also say this: Ohio State probably stole (and maybe still steals) signs to some degree. Today, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said in a College Football Playoff teleconference that “we had to get up to the level that they [OSU] were at,” when explaining Michigan’s side of the story. He also added that around 80% of teams are stealing signs like Michigan did. Are his (and Michigan’s) allegations true? Probably. To what degree? We’ll never know.
And that right there is precisely why Michigan deserves to be remembered for all time as "The Cheater Champions" if they beat Washington on Monday night. Even though this is the lamest, most pointless and unserious story to come out of college football in a long time, Michigan has made its own bed with their contempt. They cheated. They were discovered. This may be a dumb story, but what does that say about the dummy that got caught? Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, after beating Alabama, that all of the controversy and turmoil almost provided an “unfair advantage” to his squad as motivation, seemingly oblivious to the irony that this controversy came about specifically due to Michigan cheating to gain an unfair advantage.
Weeks ago, I would have told you that this scandal would mean nothing for UM’s legacy. They were one offender swimming in a sea of miscreants. Sure, their hands were dirty, but in today’s college football world, the only clean hands are the ones belonging to those finishing at the bottom of the standings every year. That’s how you can tell the difference between the have’s and the have-not’s: the teams that utilize every conceivable advantage are winning, the ones that don't aren't. In this space, Michigan is far from alone.
But where Michigan stands firmly and exposed is their bewildering arrogance and pompous defiance in the face of fundamental truth: they were caught cheating. It makes no difference who else cheated, or to what degree anyone else was cheating – even if we all know they were cheating anyway. We could have forgiven Michigan for getting caught. We can’t forgive them for being douchebags.
This need to justify and explain their actions is embarrassing. They’re heavy favorites over Washington, and if this team is as confident and as focused as they incessantly remind the media they are, then Monday night should be a cakewalk. Pointing fingers is, well, pointless. They’ve nearly climbed the mountaintop, and yet they insist on looking back to admonish everyone else who fell behind. It’s insane that Michigan is choosing to die on this hill, but it’s their wish, apparently.
So even if Michigan wins – even if they smoke the Huskies – their title will always be tainted. Not because of what they did, which out of context amounts to recording three or more similarly dressed, fully-grown men in college football regalia dancing like literal buffoons on the sidelines of a college football game while holding pictures of a banana, a pencil sharpener and Mike Tyson, but because they refuse to accept accountability. Absurd? Yes. Cheating? Also, yes.