Detroit Today: U-M football’s sign-stealing scandal, explained

Coach Jim Harbaugh has denied any knowledge of any kind of improper scouting scheme in his program.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches against Purdue in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches against Purdue in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

Lots of eyes are on the University of Michigan’s football team, but not for reasons reflecting the great start the program is having.
The NCAA is investigating the team for an elaborate scheme that allegedly allowed the team to improperly steal opposing teams play call signals to get a competitive advantage.
Tony Garcia, a Detroit Free Press reporter covering the University of Michigan football team, joined Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today Thursday to discuss the investigation and what it might mean for the season. New York University philosophy professor Lee Igel and California State University philosophy professor Garret Merriam also stopped by to break down the ethics of rule-breaking in and outside of sports and what it says about our society at large.

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Tony Garcia is a reporter covering University of Michigan football and basketball for the Detroit Free Press. He says the debate over the investigation mirrors a greater debate many are having in society.

“The idea of the game is that it is played on an even surface and that nobody has an advantage,” said Garcia. “And when that is immediately called into question, I think that is why this has reached circles beyond just sports.”

Garret Merriam is an associate professor of philosophy at California State University, Sacramento. He says sports is following a similar trend in other areas of society, like politics and business, where the focus is on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

“Sometimes people will invoke what’s commonly called the ‘Air Bud’ principle after the Disney movie, which says, ‘well, there’s no law that a golden retriever can’t play basketball. Therefore, it’s legal for the Golden Retriever to play basketball’,” said Merriam. “So part of what has changed over time is a shift away from an alternate model — which we might call the Honor Code model — where cheating is not thought of as a question of following some set of explicit rules, but rather trying to hold yourself up to a particular standard of conduct.”

Lee Igel is a professor at the New York University Tisch Institute for Global Sport, where he explores ethics in the world of sports. He says in sports, business and other areas of life, the issue is whether the actor breaks the collective agreement of the group.

“We’re really talking about when someone or a group of people crosses the line, and where is that line,” said Igel.

Listen to Detroit Today with host Stephen Henderson weekdays from 9-10 a.m. ET on 101.9 WDET and streaming on-demand.

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  • Detroit Today
    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.