NCAA could eliminate sign stealing with one simple fix

The best way to ensure 100-percent compliance with a rule is to make violating the rule impossible.

About seven or eight years ago, the NCAA’s football committee considered adding communication equipment to select players' helmets. It would allow coaches to relay plays directly to them without the need for elaborate systems using hand gestures or display boards — let alone concerns over opponents stealing those signals.

The cost — or the lack of uniform interest in spending between bigger and smaller athletic departments — played a role in college football rejecting the concept, a former committee source said.

So, too, did a presentation by the NFL where the league detailed issues with radio frequencies and malfunctioning equipment. Indeed, it was somewhat common for one team’s technology to fail, causing the other team to have to turn their stuff off and return to hand signals or huddles. If the NFL couldn’t make it work, how could college?

“It became an avalanche of ‘this seems like a pain in the ass’ and the topic was tabled,” one committee member told Yahoo Sports.

College football might want to reexamine the idea, in part because technology has greatly improved in reliability — particularly wireless communication. It would also help avoid the current scandal overwhelming if not the entire sport, then at least its second-ranked team, the University of Michigan.

The Wolverines are not under NCAA investigation for stealing signs, per se. They are in the crosshairs for allegations of off-campus, in-person scouting in an effort to gather video footage to steal signs. It’s a distinction with a clear difference.

The case centers on Michigan staff analyst Connor Stalions, who ESPN reported bought tickets to nearly three-dozen games at 11 different Big Ten campuses and had other people film the hand signals of opposing coaches.

This would be a brazen violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the NCAA rule. The rule is the rule and the NCAA should enforce it.

Members of the Illinois football team send in signals during an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
With no radios in helmets, college football coaches have taken to using poster boards to send in play calls. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

That said, Stalions may be the first clumsy enough to get caught. It’s unlikely he is the first to ever attempt this. Others are simply able to ascertain enough information off of game broadcasts and film. Sign stealing is everywhere and the bigger the game, the more intense it is.

A coach flashing a hand sign inside an 80,000-seat stadium on national television has no expectation of privacy. That’s why the motions and corresponding play can be stolen — and everyone admits to trying to steal it. Plenty of coaches don't even think it's a big deal.

"You can have someone’s whole game plan, they can mail it to you, you still have to stop it,” said Colorado coach Deion Sanders, who played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. “In football it’s not as pronounced as in baseball. If I know a curveball is coming, I got you. In football, I don't give a dern if I know a sweep is coming, I still have got to stop it.”

In this case, it’s against the rules because it was allegedly stolen in a particular manner (via advanced scouting). Yet if any of the people who allegedly “scouted” for Stalions had simply gone to the game, filmed a team’s signals and then posted it on YouTube for the world to see, it would oddly have been OK.

There is no excuse for Michigan if the allegations against Stalions are proven true. This is not a gray area. And it is still unknown how many others inside the program knew about how Stalions was gaining a sign-stealing edge (coach Jim Harbaugh has denied any knowledge).

Yet, this would still be a classic bit of the NCAA torturing itself via its own rule book and failed initiatives once again.

Both things can be true.

“Sign stealing happens every game,” said Nebraska coach Matt Rhule, who previously coached at Baylor and Temple in the NCAA and the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. “There’s nothing wrong with teams over there looking over trying to steal our signs. There’s nothing wrong with us trying to look at their signs.”

Yet, if there were no signs, there would be no need for any of this.

“That’s why you should have mics in the helmets,” Rhule continued. “Like all these coaches have voted against it every year. It’s because they don’t want to teach their quarterback [numerous complicated play calls] … it’s why kids are less prepared [for the NFL].

“Get rid of all the stupid signs on the sidelines,” he said. “We could just play football, the way it was meant to be.”

Rhule rightfully pointed out he wasn’t excusing any advanced scouting. That’s prohibited and everyone knows it.

Yet, the original issue is that there are signs that can be stolen in the first place. If the NCAA would like to avoid the kind of headlines Michigan is generating right now, or any concerns over the fairness of their games, then the solution is available.

If nothing else, it would allow a coaching staff to spend less time on espionage … and counter espionage.

“You go to a high school game, there is technology on the sideline,” Rhule said. “You go to an NFL game, there is technology on the sideline. You go to college, there is nothing.”

This scandal is fresh but the football committee will likely reconsider it soon, perhaps this offseason.

Times and technology have changed. The NFL has far fewer issues than it used to have. Soaring television revenue has reached all levels of FBS.

The best way to ensure 100-percent compliance with a rule is to make violating the rule impossible.

“We should absolutely have technology,” Rhule said.