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Michigan suspends staffer amid NCAA probe into allegations of sign-stealing

Second-ranked Michigan announced Friday they have suspended a low-level football program employee a day after disclosing they are under NCAA investigation for allegedly stealing the play-calling signals used by Wolverines opponents.

Athletic director Warde Manuel issued a one-sentence statement saying that analytics assistant Connor Stalions had been suspended with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation. Stalions had not been previously identified by the school, but was named in an ESPN report alleging he is a key figure in the probe.

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A person who has been briefed on the allegations against Michigan confirmed to the Associated Press that the investigation is focused on Stalions and whether he was involved in sending people to the games of Michigan’s opponents to take videos of teams using sideline signals. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because no one was authorized to speak publicly about the NCAA’s investigation.

Stalions is a retired captain in the Marine Corps and a graduate of the Naval Academy, ESPN reported. He was hired as an off-field analyst at Michigan in May 2022, according to a bio on his LinkedIn account that has since been deleted.

The Wolverines (7-0), who started their season with coach Jim Harbaugh serving a university-imposed three-game suspension for a still unresolved NCAA infractions case, play at Michigan State on Saturday. Harbaugh denied any knowledge or involvement in plotting to steal signs.

“I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.”

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NCAA rules do not directly ban the stealing of signs. There are rules against using electronic equipment to record an opponent’s signals, but what’s mostly at issue with Michigan is NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1: “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited.” There are also bylaws prohibiting unsportsmanlike or unethical activities by coaches, and NCAA rules place an onus on a head coach to be responsible for violations that occur under his watch.

The Big Ten notified all of Michigan’s remaining opponents of the investigation.

“As we look forward to the football game this Saturday, we are chagrined by the news of the NCAA investigation and we echo the Big Ten Conference’s commitment to integrity,” interim Michigan State president Teresa Woodruff said in a statement. “The allegations are concerning., but will be handled through the NCAA’s process.”

The accusations harken back to the Spygate scandals involving the New England Patriots. While NFL teams are permitted to do in-person advance scouting of opponents, the Patriots were fined and stripped of a first-round draft pick by the NFL after they were found to have had a staffer video an opponent’s sideline signals in 2007 – two years after they had won a Super Bowl.

Major League Baseball also recently had a sign-stealing scandal with one of its best teams. The Houston Astros were found to have used of electronics to steal signs during the team’s run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season.

Michigan is coming off two straight playoff appearances under Harbaugh and is tied with No 1 Georgia as the odds-on favorite to win the national title. The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released on 31 October.

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