With the Big Ten’s ruling on whether Michigan violated the league’s sportsmanship policy expected to arrive in the near future, the focus of the college football season’s most high-profile standoff could shift to the courtroom.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti provided notice to Michigan that the conference was considering some form of discipline earlier this week. A source confirmed to ESPN that Michigan responded Wednesday with a 10-page letter that strongly urged the league not to act, laying the groundwork for an immediate appeal to the justice system if Petitti doles out any sanctions.
Sources consistently have told ESPN the expected punishment for any widespread illicit sign-stealing program run by former analyst Connor Stalions has long been the suspension of coach Jim Harbaugh. The length of that potential suspension is uncertain.
Harbaugh served a three-game self-imposed suspension at the start of this season in response to allegations of NCAA recruiting violations. During that time, he was only prohibited from coaching the team on game days. Sources told ESPN that Big Ten athletic directors made clear to Petitti on a call last week that they wanted any suspension of Harbaugh to be different. The athletic directors, per sources, pushed strongly for Harbaugh to not be allowed to enter the facility or coach any aspect of the team at any time during the suspension.
If Petitti does suspend Harbaugh this week, sources said Michigan has been preparing to challenge the ruling in court in an effort to keep Harbaugh on the sideline for the No. 3 Wolverines’ game at No. 10 Penn State on Saturday.
Sources have indicated for days that both Harbaugh and Michigan have been preparing a legal rebuttal, the process of which likely would include a lawsuit against the Big Ten that asks for a preliminary injunction seeking to prevent the suspension.
Legal experts told ESPN that in order to get a decision in time for Saturday’s game — especially given that Friday is a court holiday — Michigan would likely be asking for an ex parte ruling on a temporary restraining order, meaning the judge could make a decision after hearing Harbaugh’s argument before the Big Ten has an opportunity to respond. The most likely venue for a hearing this week would be Washtenaw County Circuit Court in Ann Arbor. (The other potential venue would be federal court.)
A retired chief judge from Washtenaw County Circuit Court, Donald Shelton, told ESPN via email that the judge who hears the case for the temporary restraining order would need to weigh four factors: the likelihood that Michigan would succeed in the lawsuit in the end; proof of irreparable harm if the suspension is in place while waiting for a trial; what the harm would be to each side if the injunction isn’t issued; and whether the public interest is being served by granting it.
Shelton teaches at UM Dearborn in the criminal justice department and noted he’s a Michigan law grad and football fan who flies a Michigan flag at home. He joked that when he left the bench, he no longer needed to be unbiased.
But he offered a straight appraisal of the potential legal action with the proof of irreparable harm being the “strong issue” for Michigan in this potential legal dispute.
Shelton laid out Michigan’s argument for irreparable harm: “It would argue that each football game is unique and that suspending the coach from any of the forthcoming games is a harm to him and the team that cannot be undone regardless of the outcome of a future trial on the merits.”
The counterargument would be, Shelton predicted: “The Big 10 would argue that the team and the games can go ahead without the head coach without detriment, as demonstrated by its success earlier this season when Coach Harbaugh was suspended for 3 games by the NCAA.”
There is recent precedent both for a school seeking a temporary injunction to protect a player’s eligibility and for a school taking legal action against its own conference.
Eight Nebraska football players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten in 2020 to invalidate the league’s postponement of the fall football season. They did it in local court in Lancaster County, which could be instructive for the direction Michigan takes. (The Big Ten eventually reversed course and ended up playing football in 2020.)
Former Memphis basketball star James Wiseman was given a temporary injunction from an NCAA ruling in 2019 and was allowed to play in two games. He later dropped the lawsuit and left college to train for the NBA after playing in just three college games.
For a coach of Harbaugh’s profile to take legal action against his own league during a season would be unprecedented. It could have high-stakes implications on the Wolverines’ possible championship season and the long-term fate of one of the most recognizable coaches in the sport.
The scrutiny for Michigan comes in the wake of an NCAA investigation that began nearly three weeks ago. The Big Ten announced on Oct. 19 that it had alerted other schools about the NCAA’s investigation. Michigan suspended Stalions the following day, and he later resigned.
ESPN has reported that Stalions bought tickets to 12 of 13 Big Ten schools and purchased tickets to more than 35 games at 17 stadiums over the past three years. The breadth of that alleged sign-stealing ring has rankled officials around the Big Ten and prompted both coaches and athletic directors to push hard for Petitti to punish Michigan.