Michigan is preparing to take possible legal action if the Big Ten Conference punishes the Wolverines’ program before a full investigation into allegations of an impermissible scouting and sign-stealing scheme, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The potential for a court fight has increased in recent days as the Big Ten and NCAA weigh details and possible evidence in the case that has dogged Michigan for the past two weeks and shadowed its pursuit of another trip to the College Football Playoff. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Michigan is not discussing its strategy publicly, and did not provide details of its potential next moves.
Michigan and the Big Ten have both confirmed the school was notified of potential discipline from the conference. The conference gave the school until early this week to respond to allegations and evidence it has been presented.
All this is playing out as the second-ranked Wolverines (9-0) prepare to face their toughest test of the season at No. 9 Penn State (8-1) on Saturday.
The NCAA is investigating Michigan, too, but its process is slower and is likely to stretch well past the season. Big Ten’s rules allow for swifter action and coaches and athletic directors in the league have been pushing Commissioner Tony Petitti to discipline Michigan under the conference’s bylaws that cover sportsmanship and competitive integrity.
Michigan and its supporters say the conference is rushing to judgment and Petitti, a former Major League Baseball executive who took the job six months ago, is being pushed to act in a way not supported by league bylaws. Former Michigan star and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard said in an email response to AP such a situation wouldn’t happen in the Southeastern Conference.
“I can’t imagine (commissioner) Greg Sankey — or Mike Slive before him — allowing themselves to be publicly bullied into circumventing the NCAA investigative process by coaches and ADs who insist on immediate punishment before a full investigation is conducted,” said Howard, who has been an analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay” since 2005. “Especially if a potential national championship is on the line for the conference.”
The NCAA doesn’t outlaw sign-stealing, but it has rules against in-person scouting of opponents and using electronic equipment to steal signs. The allegations against Michigan suggest a far more robust approach to gathering signs.
Big Ten bylaws allow for the commissioner to hand down a two-game suspension and a fine of up to $10,000, though more severe penalties can be imposed with approval of the joint group executive committee, comprised of leaders from other Big Ten schools.
Petitti met last week with Big Ten ADs, who discussed possible penalties. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, who served a school-imposed, three-game suspension earlier this season for an unrelated NCAA infractions case, has denied any knowledge of the scheme.
Michigan could seek a court order from a judge that would put any punishment from the Big Ten on hold.
“It’s designed to be quick but temporary and it is very difficult to get temporary or injunctive relief. Courts rarely grant it,” Tulane sports law professor Gabe Feldman said.
“Michigan could argue that, yes, they agreed to give the conference power to discipline schools, but the conference has abused their power in this case by disciplining without sufficient evidence and without sufficient process,” he added.
A low-level staffer at the center of the investigation, Connor Stalions, resigned last week. Through his attorney, Stalions said that, to his knowledge, none of the Michigan coaches told anyone to break rules or were aware of improper conduct when it came to advance scouting.
Michigan says it is cooperating with the NCAA. The person with knowledge of the situation told the AP the NCAA has not shared any evidence with the Big Ten that shows Harbaugh or his assistant coaches knew or were involved with a sign-stealing scheme.
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