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Washington Huskies Weekly Debate: The Ethics of Stealing Signals

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How far is too far when it comes to the competitive advantage? We try and dive deep into the ethics of stealing signals (or signs, depending on your verbiage) and whether or not we should support our favorite team attempting to do so.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In this week's edition of the Washington Huskies weekly debate, the topic is stealing signals. Arizona State, this Saturday's opponent, has been in the news nearly weekly because they think people are stealing their signs and their opponents think that Arizona State is trying to do the same. This past weekend, everyone's favorite pirate-turned-rival-head-coach Mike Leach essentially made fun of Arizona State's paranoia about sign stealing, sarcastically giving the credit for his teams victory to "all the signs we stole in the second half".

You can read more about that here.

This poses an interesting debate into whether or not teams should be trying to steal signals from their opponent. Because we're all Washington fans here, the question can be phrased much more personally:

Would you support the Washington Huskies Staff if they were to steal signs?


To Steal

Carelessness shouldn't be rewarded

Signals that are easily stolen will be stolen, in every level of the sport. If you're playing pick-up basketball at the local rec center and you want a teammate to set a screen on your defender, you don't yell out "STEVE! STEVE! PICK AND ROLL STEVE!" because it's assumed that every person on their defense will pick up on what you're trying to signal and render it useless. In little league football, if you audible enough times at the line of scrimmage for a toss sweep by yelling "29-29-29" and the defense figures out that 29 means toss sweep to the left, is it wrong or unethical to blitz the edge and blow up the back in the backfield? No, and even though these are the simplest and most basic examples of careless signals, it's something that happens all the time, just with varying levels of carelessness. If you have one coach signalling for an all out blitz by doing the Y-M-C-A dance, you can't complain when someone puts two and two together and calls out that a blitz is coming.

Protection of the signals is on the burden of the team signalling.

This is more of a part two than a second point, but if your signals are so basic and elementary that the opposition can pick up what it means, that's on you, not them. Teams that huddle don't have giant boards with pictures of Mickey Mouse and television's Brent Barry that they use to signal in the play to all 11 people on the offense, they instead have a signal that goes from playcaller to quarterback, who relays it to the rest of the team. They still have to protect their signals, but changes can be more easily made when you're signalling for a certain play on a wristband of the one person who has to know what your signal means.

So, deviating from that time proven method to a quicker, more easily accessible system for the benefit of quicker, more streamlined playcalling creates a can of worms you have to be prepared to deal with. It's not on the opponent to not look over at your giant board with memorable pictures and go "hey, I've seen this before, coach told us this means RB dive" because that's unreasonable. It's not their problem to accommodate your needs that they just don't look over at what you're doing. Instead, it's on you to create signals that can't be stolen by a reasonable effort to do so, and to own up to it if you just can't do that and everything else you want to do.

If you don't, they will

A dilemma that tortures all the honest people in the world that are competing for something: What if I lose and they win and the deciding factor was they were willing to play dirty and I wasn't? If there are this many schools in the conference this paranoid about signals being stolen, it's almost a given that it exists and everyone else is trying to do it. It's a legitimate concern for almost everybody in the conference, but is that because they realize how easy it is to steal their opponents' signals? A man who is cheating on his wife is pretty much the expert at how easy or difficult it is to cheat on a spouse, right? So, how is this any different? It's not a stretch to assume that these coaches have a fear of teams being able to steal their signals because they know from experience it's not an impossible task. If you choose the high road, well, I doubt there will be much traffic.

To Not Steal

It's gone too far

While I do think teams have to make sure their signals aren't easily stolen, the case can be made that teams are doing way too much now to try and steal signs. There's accusations of coaches filming coaches' signals and using that to steal complex signals on game day, which has led to the ridiculous sheet things that Oregon had to use to protect their signals from Arizona State. We shouldn't need all of this for a game of football between college kids who have to try and learn calculus in their spare time. It's gone overboard and it's embarrassing that these coaches can use the guise of being a "role model" or "father figure" to promote amateurism and the whole "this is all bigger than football, this is really about educating young men" thing they're pushing really hard for.

This brings me to the most important point.

It goes against the spirit of the game

Most sports don't have these sorts of awful problems that surround it. In track and field, if you cross the line before your opponent and didn't break any rules, you win. If you pin or score more points than your opponent in wrestling, you win. Basketball, soccer, and hockey are much more influenced on the abilities of the players during the game than the ability of a coach to call the right play at the right time. Yet here we are, with football seeming like a sport that's less and less fun to play. If we're at the point to where you need six different people signalling six different things to make sure your signals aren't stolen, then what are we really doing here? This game has warped into some twisted battle between two coaches to see who can do what it takes to win a game, using whatever tactic is necessary. It's a battle to see who can find the competitive edge, whether by shady recruiting tactics, performance enhancing drugs, bending the rules as far as they can go, and now turning the sport into a battle of espionage.

There has to be something that ends all of this, and if that's a coalition of coaches agreeing to not steal signs, that's a start. The winner should not be decided by the assistant coaches who studied the opponent's signals the best, but it should instead be decided by the players on the field. Everything that happens away from the field that falls within this same sketchy gray area is going to one day engulf the game of college football and ruin what we all love about it. I know that's quite the doomsday prophecy and it's a little extreme, but if enough small things add up, it can make a huge difference. Maybe signal stealing isn't the end of the world, but that doesn't mean it couldn't play a factor in its eventual demise.

Plus, winning without cheating or playing dirty feels so much better than having to play dirty to win.

Please vote down below and leave your thoughts in the comments below on whether or not you would support Washington's attempted stealing of signs.