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As NCAA investigates Michigan, helmet communication technology may soon make sign stealing issue of past

No. 2 Michigan is involved in an alleged advanced scouting and sign-stealing scandal. This as the age-old practice of sign stealing may already be on its way out of college football.

During the upcoming 2023-24 bowl season, the NCAA Rules Committee is giving teams the option of using coach-to-player helmet communications to relay plays from the sideline. While the practice has been a foundation of the NFL for nearly three decades, for some reason, it has not taken hold in the FBS.

That may be about to change.

“If you polled coaches and said, ‘What is your No. 1 technology desire?’ it would be coach-to-player communications,” said Steve Shaw, secretary-editor of the rules committee.

It was revealed Thursday that the NCAA is investigating Michigan for in-person scouting of future opponents that involved sign stealing.

Will that burgeoning scandal fast track the helmet communications era?

“The thought of that is, if you had coach-to-player communications, that would minimize the number of signals going to the field,” Shaw added.

The mere mention of an NCAA investigation may cause Michigan’s remaining opponents to completely revamp their sideline signals. A 30-year-old NCAA rule prohibits in-person advance scouting of opponents. Sign-stealing itself does not violate NCAA rules, but an advance scout doing so would be in violation of the rules.

At issue:

  • Whether Michigan was using a soft first-half schedule to refine sign-stealing tactics for a second half in which it plays Penn State and Ohio State.
  • Whether video was used to scout future opponents; game film that is exchanged between teams typically doesn’t reveal enough of the sidelines to see signs.
  • Two Michigan opponents told Yahoo Sports that the Wolverines knew their signs. A halftime interview with Rutgers coach Greg Schiano on Sept. 23 raised suspicions.

Teams that don’t huddle typically signal in plays — with large cardboard signs or by hand — using several individuals meant to confuse the opposition.

Harbaugh issued a statement late Thursday denying knowledge of the program “illegally” stealing signs. Game day sign stealing is considered a fine art and not punishable by NCAA rules unless technology is involved.

“If you just stand on the sideline and look over there and figure it out, there is no rule preventing it,” Shaw confirmed.

The NCAA seems to be well down the road toward adopting electronic communications. Both teams in the 2021 Bayou Classic between Southern and Grambling State used helmet communications on an experimental basis. GoRout is developing technology to relay signals through a watch-like device. Gallaudet University was recently given permission by the NCAA to use visual technology in helmets for its hearing-impaired athletes.

It has yet to be decided which players or teams will use helmet technology this bowl season.

“Once the coaches trust it and feel good about it, it would [eliminate signs],” Shaw said. “[Coaches] probably would be paranoid about if the technology goes down. ‘What are we doing to do then?'”

The college rationale for not adopting the technology has centered around cost and liability concerns. Helmet manufacturers have made it known that any moderation to that piece of equipment may violate National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) safety standards. NOCSAE is considered the industry standard for helmet safety.

Lawsuits regarding head trauma have caused several helmet manufacturers to go out of business. That has left Ridell and Schutt as the last major helmet manufacturers. 

Liability has not been determined for the helmet communication technology that might be used during bowl season. Southern and Grambling agreed to assume those liability risks in 2021. NFL helmets not only pass NOCSAE standards but those standards established by the NFL and NFLPA. The Gallaudet helmets passed NOCSAE standards, per sources.  

The NCAA investigation into Michigan comes at a time when Harbaugh is already under investigation for allegedly lying to the NCAA about a series of Level II violations. To mitigate any penalties, Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension on Harbaugh to begin this season.

Michigan is about to play its most emotional game of the season thus far as it travels to face in-state rival Michigan State.

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