Cheating in sports: Michigan football the latest scandal. Why is playing by rules so hard?

 In this 10-part series, USA TODAY Sports will explore some of the most interesting cheating scandals in history, illustrate obscure or mundane ways it happens at various levels of sport and talk to

experts about what’s
needed to slow an epidemic that highlights the frailty of humans and the institutions we’ve created to promotethe welfare of everyone.

In this ten-part series, USA TODAY Sports will delve into some of the most fascinating historical cheating scandals, highlight the unusual or commonplace ways it occurs in sports at different levels, and speak with experts about the steps that need to be taken to curb an epidemic that exposes the fallibility of both human nature and the institutions put in place to further the common good.

There was no justification for any sports enthusiast to be aware of Connor Stalions. Trim, goateed, and sometimes spotted with an ill-fitting hat, he bore little resemblance to any of the dozen coaching aspirants the general public follows.

every Saturday on every college football sideline in America, but mostly overlooked.

He was only one little part of Michigan football’s enormous machine, a team that takes great satisfaction in being the first and only in the history of the game to win 1,000 games since the team’s founding in 1879.

This autumn, however, in a location synonymous with the likes of Fielding Yost, Bo Schembechler, Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, and even President Gerald Ford, there was a straightforward explanation for why, at least for a few weeks, the Stalions eclipsed all of them in the collegiate football landscape.

He was unfaithful.

As long as there have been games organized by an agreed-upon set of rules, there have been people willing to break them to reap whatever comes with victory — money, fame, or in Stalions’ case, the relentless pursuit of career advancement through illicit means. The evidence of it stretches back centuries and continues to fascinate fans, athletes and scholars.

“Cheating in the chariot races was written about in the Iliad,” said Clark Power, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Notre Dame who also directs a non-profit organization that promotes equity and character development in youth sports. “It’s a human-nature problem, in some sense.”

What initially drives someone to cheat? What about the gray regions of game play that don’t quite fit the definition of blatant cheating but still don’t follow the rules? And with so many individuals prepared to cheat, is there any chance for really fair competition?

“Sports will bring out whatever is inside of you and me,” stated John White, a practical theology professor who founded the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University. “Is it bringing out the best version of me or the worst version?”

The revelation that Stalions, an analyst working on a $55,000 per year salary, had created a network of amateur spies to film the sidelines of future Michigan opponents in an elaborate scheme to decode their play calls, rocked the sport this fall.

It sparked an investigation from the NCAA, which prohibits in-person scouting. It cost Stalions his job, as well as Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge, who allegedly tried to tamper with evidence once the revelations

went public. Despite the lack of any proof that head coach Jim Harbaugh approved of the plan or even knew about it, it compelled the Big Ten to punish him for three games.

As was to be expected, it also provoked criticism from supporters who questioned if former Marine Corps captain Stalions had truly cheated or had just revealed an NCAA loophole. National coaches voiced their opinions, with most of them concurring that although the Stalions had gone too far, sign-stealing and information-sharing between teams had always been a part of the game. Additionally, Michigan’s sports director said in a 10-page statement to the Big Ten that the particular regulation Stalions

broke against the notion that in-person scouting provided little benefit over competitors and that an NCAA commission had lately questioned its worth.

Even though there is still a long way to go until Michigan plays in a College Football Playoff semifinal on January 1, the incident has followed a well-known pattern of cynicism that has been repeated hundreds of times in sports history whenever proof of cheating is discovered: There was initial indignation, which was followed by the justification that everyone was somewhat breaking the rules, and a discussion on why the rule was created in the first place.

Cheating in baseball: Coming to terms with PED use a quarter-century later

Even today, more than 25 years after baseball’s steroid-fueled home run chases that forced a rewrite of the record books, there is an ongoing conversation about how the sport should recognize the achievements of players who either admitted to or were suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, leaving voters the near-impossible job of litigating asterisks next to records like Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001.

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