By: Cal Forde
November 27, 2023
Photo Credit: Associated Press
NCAA Division I college football is a giant American institution. In 2022, NCAA Power Five Conferences reported a combined $3.3 billion in revenue. In fact, the Big Ten Conference (which is currently under scrutiny for Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme) led the way with a reported $845.6 million in revenue in 2022 – more than $40 million above what is arguably the strongest college football conference, the SEC.
Amid the University of Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal, the lack of in-game communication technology between coaches and players is gaining more intense scrutiny. Last week, head coach Jim Harbaugh accepted the Big Ten’s three-game suspension for the remainder of the 2023 regular season and dropped pending legal charges against the Big Ten to block the Big Ten’s in-season suspension. Given the huge amounts of revenue college football generates, the question remains why the NCAA has not put forth more money and effort to prevent such scandals through the implementation of technology similar to the NFL’s helmet communication, MLB’s PitchCom, or even communication technologies present on fields and sidelines of high school football games. While the viewing experience for NCAA Division I College Football has continued to improve with high-resolution video and audio with various angle options, instant replay, and advanced statistics, the on-field game has lagged behind technologically.
The practice of coach-to-player helmet communication has been a foundation for the NFL since 1994, significantly reducing downtime between plays and the overall pace of the game. While teams are still permitted to communicate plays via hand and actions, they tend to rely on helmet communication, which is quicker and clearer, and reduces the chance of opponents decoding a team's signs.
Helmet communication technologies between coaches and players are not the only option. GoRout is an emerging technology in this field that allows coaches to punch in a play from the sidelines that will appear digitally on a player’s wristband on the field. So far, 55 FBS teams, including powerhouses such as the University of Washington and Indiana University, are loyal clients and use the technology in practice. Additionally, just this fall, AT&T partnered with Gallaudet University, a small Division III school for students who are hearing impaired, unveiling a helmet that allows coaches on the sidelines to enter plays into a tablet which then appear on a small screen inside the visor of players’ helmets. This technology was approved by the NCAA for gameplay on October 7, 2023.
For the past two years, prominent head coaches, such as the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban and the University of Nebraska’s Matt Rhule, as well as entire conferences and outside organizations, such as the American Football Coaches Association, have fully backed the implementation of in-game communication technology between coaches and players. Nevertheless, the NCAA Football Rules Committee has thwarted this support, claiming it would give a competitive advantage to more highly funded programs and citing potential issues in stadiums’ network connection stability.
The recent conflict raises the question: If the NCAA Football Rules Committee listened to conferences, organizations, and coaches, would the entire Michigan sign-stealing scandal exist? Many coaches think not: “You can't steal signs and do any of this stuff if you have a helmet communicator,” Saban said. SEC commissioner, Greg Sankey, told CBS Sports, “The [football] rules committee has got to adapt, to allow more use of technology. I feel quite certain the recent in-depth reporting and summaries of the activities involving certain programs would encourage the rules committee.” Additionally, on the topic of helmet communication technology, University of Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts stated, “Oh yeah, put me on the record on this … I am a strong proponent of it [communication technology]. Our commissioner is a strong component of it. We've had lots of talks with our coaches in the Big Ten.”