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Lawyers, signs and money: College football has a B1G mess on its hands

If the next episode of this bizarre Michigan cheating scandal doesn’t include Jim Harbaugh showing up in the goofiest possible disguise to coach his team, then college football has no sense of humor. An absurd controversy grew stranger Friday afternoon when the Big Ten took about as much time as it could to announce a potential season-defining disciplinary action: Harbaugh can’t coach the Wolverines for the final three games of the regular season.

To be perfectly unclear, the coach who may or may not have known about a staffer’s alleged prohibited in-person scouting and sign-stealing operation has received a rare kind of preemptive punishment for a complicated matter still under investigation. The Michigan situation is the haziest clear-cut crime. Connor Stalions, the recently fired analyst and apparent mastermind of the harebrained scheme, left evidence of wrongdoing all over the country. But while it is easy to assume Stalions didn’t sin in isolation, there haven’t been compelling revelations that prove a high-level, Harbaugh-orchestrated conspiracy.

Scrutiny takes time. Truth and accountability are not microwaveable concepts. But in the emotional whirlwind of sports, Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti felt the need to act now. Using the conference’s nebulous sportsmanship policy, he found reason to deliver the most contentious decision of his six months on the job. Petitti couldn’t win, really. And he made sure he didn’t.

Depending on how the sight of maize and blue affects your senses, you are left to conclude the punishment was too heavy-handed or lenient, too inconsequential or too misaligned with NCAA procedures. But can we pile on by adding too comical? This is officially the silliest season in an era of college football silliness. On multiple levels, rival schools are on their worst behavior, and now their never-ending wrestling matches are spilling into a kangaroo sports court.

Michigan isn’t simply accused of cheating. It is accused of smugly daring to cheat in defiance of accepted norms. The competitive advantage of stealing signals isn’t necessarily the crime; many teams are known to do that. The manner in which Stalions arranged the effort to decipher opponents’ calls is the reprehensible football act. And for the Wolverines, the hypocrisy of their anonymous accusers is both their gripe and part of their defense.

Ultimately, Petitti was forced to pick a side. It now looks like the outrage of Big Ten coaches and athletic directors influenced his decision. Petitti will be perceived as pliable moving forward. It’s tough to hold authority when your members, constantly aggrieved, feel as if they can shout their way to a favorable response. Then again, if Petitti had delayed action, he could have been made to seem like a Michigan apologist concerned only with trying to get multiple Big Ten teams into the College Football Playoff.

Given a choice between the general discontent of most of its members and the specific resentment from Michigan, Petitti went with the latter. Now the commissioner has a rival in the Wolverines. It’s a story that will be fascinating to follow, starting with Michigan taking legal action to keep Harbaugh on the sideline and maintain its undefeated season and national title pursuit. But over the long term, how will this difficult relationship evolve between the new commissioner and the Wolverines, who along with Ohio State are the conference’s most important football assets? The conflict comes at a precarious time in the realigning sport, with every prestigious football school seemingly willing to go to extreme lengths to cash checks and fortify its power.

It doesn’t seem likely that Michigan would make some rash move to further destroy a college football structure lacking central leadership and vision. But the Wolverines are ready to fight their own conference, at a minimum. The circuslike unveiling of Harbaugh’s suspension only made matters worse. It was a Friday made preposterous by live television images of No. 3 Michigan departing Ann Arbor and arriving in State College for its game at No. 10 Penn State, all because the media was waiting for the conference to announce its decision. It did so while Harbaugh and his team were in flight.

“We are dismayed at the Commissioner’s rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation — one in which we are fully cooperating,” Michigan said in a statement Friday. “Commissioner Petitti’s hasty action [Friday] suggests that this is more about reacting to pressure from other Conference members than a desire to apply the rules fairly and impartially. By taking this action at this hour, the Commissioner is personally inserting himself onto the sidelines and altering the level playing field that he is claiming to preserve.

“And, doing so on Veterans Day — a court holiday — to try to thwart the University from seeking immediate judicial relief is hardly a profile in impartiality.”

In Petitti’s mind, he opted to defend the integrity of Big Ten football. And when the dust settles, he may have done so. But right now, it seems like he has walked to the end of the plank instead of taking measured steps. Perhaps he felt that punishing Harbaugh, a brilliant coach but a polarizing figure, was a middle-ground act. This is Harbaugh’s second suspension of the season; Michigan self-imposed a three-game ban to start the year because of alleged NCAA violations during what was supposed to be a covid-19 period of inactivity.

Harbaugh is easily the most accomplished major college or pro football coach who has yet to win it all. He keeps finding trouble, though. It’s getting easier to paint him as a renegade. But that’s another dangerous assumption at this point.

That’s also the modern history of college football, isn’t it? There’s never any time for certainty. The best team in the nation, even with a four-team playoff, is largely an educated guess. Why not calm everyone down by punishing the cheaters and trusting evidence won’t exonerate Harbaugh?

In this silliest of seasons, the premature punishment is just as absurd as the crime.

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