There has to be a bad guy.
All right, that’s not true. There doesn’t have to be a bad guy. There is no rule that states the necessity of a heel. No statute that specifies the presence of a widely despised, shadowy, black-hatted figure who dominates the mood of the room. No understood agreement requiring the existence of someone or something toward whom a large percentage of an audience can hurl a chorus of boos.
But, man, the world sure is a lot more fun when there is one. Darth Vader, Thanos, The Joker, Norman Bates, the Wicked Witch of the West, that wizard with no nose whose name Harry Potter wasn’t supposed to say aloud, and now, the 2023 Michigan Wolverines.
“I know there’s a lot of noise going on the outside of the building,” Wolverines offensive lineman Zak Zinter said on Monday. “Haven’t really paid too, too much attention to it. But I mean if someone thinks we’re the villain, I mean, I’m fine being the villain.
“You know, sometimes the villain wins and takes down the superhero. So, if that’s got to be the case, let’s be the villain and let’s take them down. I’m fine with being the villain if that’s how the media and everyone else sees it outside the building.”
Good thing. Because to those outside of Ann Arbor, that’s what they have become. Thanks to an ongoing investigation into whether or not a (now former) Michigan staffer blatantly broke a bunch of rules, statutes and understood agreements that college football teams aren’t supposed to do any in-person scouting of opponents. Given that in the grand scheme of college football scandals, this is relatively harmless (and extremely funny), the Wolverines should welcome the hate from rivals and embrace their new role as villains.
For anyone who’s been asleep the last few weeks, Connor Stalions resigned from his position as an analyst late last week after being accused of paying people to attend games featuring Michigan football foes to record and decode their signals from the stands. Video has even surfaced of someone appearing to be Stalions himself on the sideline at Central Michigan, hiding in plain sight in what appears to be a costume he purchased at a Spirit Halloween store in a plastic bag labeled “D.B. Cooper Sports Coach.”
I want Oliver Stone to do a Michigan movie. These clandestine Stalions images remind me of the photos that may or may not have been Lee Harvey Oswald. Was that him in Cuba? Is that a photo of him in Moscow? Was that him on the sideline at Central Michigan watching #MACtion?! pic.twitter.com/iZDLePhnqC
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) November 6, 2023
On the surface, being pushed into that antihero life would seem to be a drag. A distraction. Something that can take you away from your ultimate goals. Like beating Penn State this weekend and then trying to earn a third straight Big Ten title and College Football Playoff berth.
But there are also benefits to leaning into one’s role as the rascal. Any actor who has ever portrayed the villain will tell you it’s a lot more fun than being the hero. (Except Wicked Witch actress Margaret Hamilton, who said it broke her heart that kids ran away from her the rest of her life.)
“It’s cliche to say, but bad guys have more fun. You can get away with more,” Denzel Washington explained in 2020, the 20th anniversary of his turn as a still-beloved head coach in Remember the Titans, but 19th anniversary of his Oscar-winning portrayal as a horrifyingly evil police officer in Training Day. “In playing a real character who’s heroic, you’re kind of stuck because there’s only so much you can get away with. But the bad guy, that dude can say and do anything. As an actor, we love that.”
It’s the same for most athletes. Think about Terrell Owens with his arms held toward the sky atop the Dallas Cowboys star. Think about the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys throwing eight elbows simultaneously into Michael Jordan’s face. The Fab Five. The U. Deion Sanders during his OG Prime Time days at Florida State. Tom Brady and his three post-Deflategate Vince Lombardi Trophies. Most recently, the Houston Astros banging on garbage cans to transmit stolen signals with the very same hands that at season’s end were fashioned with World Series rings.
Did they look miserable to you?
It was Dale Earnhardt, aka The Man In Black, who famously said, “I don’t care if fans are cheering or booing, as long as they’re making noise.”
That sentiment of actors and athletes is shared even by the actors who play athletes. Just ask Ric Flair. The Nature Boy, the self-described “dirtiest player in the game” has spent a lifetime in the ring making people angry and has “Woo!’d” all the way to the bank. On Monday, he “Woo!’d” his way into Schembechler Hall to see an old pal, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and perhaps give a lesson or two to the Wolverines on living life on the dark side.
Harbaugh said of the visit: “Big-game atmosphere in Schembechler Hall. A ton of enthusiasm and excitement, and my energy level was already sky high…and that just brought the enthusiasm to a new level.”
It isn’t fair the kids on the Michigan roster have to atone for the accused sins of the grown adults who were hired to coach and lead them. Even Harbaugh admitted that this week, saying, “Nobody wants criticism. That’s why I work so hard to do everything right, both on and off the field. Because it’s been that way for a long time, since I was 22 years old. But if the criticism is directed to me and not my adolescent kids or the players on the football team, then I’m OK with it.”
But these are also the maize-and-blue cards they have been handed. Players who, like anyone their age, have their faces in their phones around the clock, flicking through their social media feeds. Since the Michigan story broke last month, those timelines have been filled with images of Stalions at CMU and pics of so many people who went out on Halloween night dressed as Michigan’s khaki-slacked head coach, complete with giant binoculars around their necks.
Happy Halloween from Tennessee! 🎃
— Daniel (DT) Troutman (@BigDaddyD_55) November 1, 2023
The unavoidable legal wrestling between Michigan and the Big Ten as the conference’s look into disciplinary action will certainly be another pain in everyone’s collective Big House lives. But if the NCAA moves at its usual pace — think a Big Ten offense circa 1965 (or a certain one in Iowa City circa 2023) — then it will be long after many of this year’s roster has moved on before any real retroactive punishment rolls out from the halls of Indianapolis.
In the meantime, the scandal will continue to be the embodiment of what we love about this sport. Past the games and the marching bands, college football is built on pettiness. The rival you have hated since the day you were born — and that your grandparents and parents despised long before you were born. Whenever they might possibly be up to something unscrupulous, true or untrue, you are obligated by your very DNA to tell the world that you had been right about those mangy, cheating, no-good so-and-so’s all along.
And in turn, they must say the same about you and immediately remind everyone of that time you did that thing that wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up because, hey, that’s the only way you could have beaten them in that one game that one time that everyone still talks about. (See: “Well, everyone’s doing it and we know they not only stole our signs but they all shared them, too!”)
If Connor Stalions did what he has been accused of, then he and Michigan will be punished. And they should be. But this also isn’t a crime. It isn’t even a betting scandal or rampant recruiting violations with bags of cash being passed around. No one here has been hurt or even arrested.
In a weird way, it’s actually a bit refreshing. A genuine on-field football controversy that has also become a deliciously stupid game of gloved finger pointing. Cheating is bad. That we can all agree on. And in the end, the truth will be revealed, and the official comeuppance, whatever form that takes, will be handed down from above. But that’s going to take a while.
Between now and whenever that might be, everyone dressed in blue can’t do anything but play football games and wait. So, why waste that time fighting the outside world when you could be standing on the sideline spot where Stalions is no longer allowed, from Ann Arbor all the way into the postseason, arms outstretched like the baddies you now are and bellowing, “BWAHAHAHAHA!”