NCAA president offers up solution to sign-stealing in college football

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PULLMAN, Wash. – The president of the NCAA wants to restart discussions about getting helmet radio technology in college football as a way to avoid the controversy currently engulfing the Michigan Wolverines.

Charlie Baker, the new NCAA president, told USA TODAY Sports in an interview Friday that “my goal is going to be to try to get it back on the agenda” after previous discussions about it at the NCAA level didn’t go anywhere.

He declined comment on the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan, which is facing allegations that it violated an NCAA rule prohibiting in-person advance scouting of opponents to steal play-calling signals. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh this week accepted a three-game suspension as punishment for it as part of a settlement with the Big Ten Conference.

“Michigan has been a very collaborative partner all the way through the process, and we’re gonna pursue it until we finish interviewing everybody that is scheduled to be interviewed and review all the documents that we’ve asked for,” Baker said Friday here at Washington State University, where he was visiting.

Other forms of sign-stealing are not against the rules, such using game film to decipher signals. But using video recordings to decode coaches’ signals from the sidelines is illegal under NCAA rules. So is in-person advance scouting, which violates an NCAA rule instituted in 1994 that prohibited it as a way to keep costs down for those who couldn’t afford such an operation. Some have argued the rule is antiquated because it’s no longer hard to afford in an era of $77 million coaching buyouts and conference realignment driven by lucrative television contracts.

What can the NCAA do about this?

Helmet technology could make old-fashioned handmade play signals obsolete with the use of audio communication from coaches through players’ helmets, which is used in the NFL. Such communication couldn’t be stolen by scouting a team in person to steal hand signals and signs made by coaches on the sideline to their players on the field.

“I think it’s a rule that people expect schools to comply with,” said Baker, who started at the NCAA in March and previously served as the governor of Massachusetts. “What I will say is I’m looking forward to having a conversation at least with the (Power Five conferences) about trying to create a framework and a structure around the helmet technology. There’s a lot of work you’ve got to do around your stadium, and it’s a complicated process. I’m not sure it would work for everybody in Division I to go there, but I think this a pretty good opportunity for us to engage the (Power Five) folks and try to figure out a way to make the helmet radios work because that would take this issue off the table.”

Baker said he’s not exactly sure why such technology has not advanced at the college level, but he hopes to change that.

The NCAA could play a role in it, he said, because “you need rules.”

“The NFL has rules for both how you use them and how you can’t use them, what you use them for, and you’d also want to come up with some sort of universal design for how you’re gonna do this stuff around the stadium,” Baker said. “You need a framework for it.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email:

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