Weekly Column: Suspensions and Controversy in Sports

In his capacity as a Columnist for California Sports Lawyer®, Founder Jeremy Evans has written a column about University of Michigan Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh's three game suspension by the Big Ten Conference amid allegations of sign-stealing by a former university staffer.

You can read the full column below.


Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the University of Michigan football team, is one of the most popular and sought after minds in football. His reputation with Stanford University, the San Francisco 49ers, and Michigan has all been excellent, positive, and successful, which is saying a lot in an era where social media and public outcry can have one cancelled immediately without due process.

In life and sports, there always seems to be some controversy. The sign-stealing scandal through former Michigan assistant Connor Stalions is the most important controversy Coach Harbaugh has faced in his coaching career to date. The allegation is that Mr. Stalions purchased tickets to football games of future Michigan opponents to gather intelligence or more simply the signs/signals that the opposing teams would use when calling plays. The assumption or causal connection is further that Mr. Stalions took that information and shared it with the Michigan coaching staff to help prepare for future games as an added advantage.

NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1 Off-Campus, In-Person Scouting Prohibition provides that “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited, except as provided in Bylaws and” NCAA Bylaw Exception -- Same Event at the Same Site provides that “An institutional staff member may scout future opponents also participating in the same event at the same site.” Furthermore, NCAA Bylaw Exception -- Conference or NCAA Championships provides that “An institutional staff member may attend a contest in the institution's conference championship or an NCAA championship contest in which a future opponent participates (e.g., an opponent on the institution's spring nonchampionship-segment schedule participates in a fall conference or NCAA championship).”

Here, for violation of NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1 by former Michigan staffer Stalions, there are several elements that must be proven true to find Coach Harbaugh and the University of Michigan at fault and suffer the consequences potentially beyond Coach Harbaugh’s three game suspension for the 2023 season by the Big Ten Conference. The NCAA will have to find and prove that Mr. Stalions was employed by the University of Michigan and paid a salary. At the request and acceptance of Michigan, Mr. Stalions recorded future Michigan opponents during the regular season that Michigan would play during that same season. If there are facts to those aforementioned elements, the Coach Harbaugh and Michigan will be facing discipline for such behavior that may include loss of wins, trophies, and potentially a run at this years College Football Playoff and National Championship. Although many experts contend that no discipline will be handed down during the season to not upset the season.

Time will tell how the NCAA handles the matter. However, in drawing upon the controversy and in comparing the New England Patriots “Skygate” with the New York Jets or the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal with the use of technology and trashcans, the punishment for Coach Harbaugh and Michigan will be severe if the elements of NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1 are shown to have been violated by the University or its employees. NCAA President Charlie Baker will surely look to enforce a fair punishment for the offense, but it is also an opportunity for the NCAA to flex its muscle or even potentially think about changing the rules to make coaches more liable for cheating through longer suspensions beyond employment contracts. No system is perfect, while due process is the most important aspect of any discipline or petitionary system. Everyone accused must have their voice heard. People and public opinion would be wise to practice patience and allow due process to take its course and not act as judge, jury, and executioner.


About Jeremy M. Evans:

Jeremy M. Evans is the Chief Entrepreneur Officer, Founder & Managing Attorney at California Sports Lawyer®, representing entertainment, media, and sports clients in contractual, intellectual property, and dealmaking matters. Evans is an award-winning attorney and industry leader based in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, California. He can be reached at Jeremy@CSLlegal.com. www.CSLlegal.com.  

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Jeremy M. Evans is the CEO, Founder & Managing Attorney of California Sports Lawyer® representing entertainment, media, and sports clients and is licensed to practice law in California.