Commentary

Defining the different shades of gray

Online social networks like Twitter and Facebook expose gray areas in recruiting

Originally Published: July 7, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is the second story in a four-part series examining the impact of online social networks on college athletics.

Amy Huchthausen paused and laughed.

"Coaches," Huchthausen said, "are very creative."

She should know. As one of the directors of academic and membership services at the NCAA, Huchthausen is charged with making sure coaches toe the line and follow the rules.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Jim Brown/US PresswireLane Kiffin is among the more active coaches when it comes to social networking, though it landed him in some hot water when he mentioned a recruit by name on his Twitter page.

Feral-cat herders have an easier job.

If the NCAA rulebook is written in black and white, college coaches are pros at finding the gray -- twisting semantics and reinventing interpretations in ways that would make Roget and Webster proud.

These, after all, are the same people who found a way to reinterpret a rule and move Midnight Madness … even though, by its very definition, Midnight Madness is supposed to be held when the clock strikes 12 to signify the first official day of practice.

Thanks to overzealous coaches, the NCAA long has found itself in the precarious position of monitoring free speech. People have the right to talk to whoever they want to, whenever they want to, but how much is too much? What's the line between good salesmanship and harassment when the person being wooed is still fighting his first case of acne?

In trying to define that fine line, over the years the NCAA has enacted legislation regarding communication to address new advances in technology -- from mail to telephone to fax machine to e-mail to text messaging to the latest crazes, Twitter and Facebook.

Socializing Online

John Calipari tweets. So does Pete Carroll. The SEC has a Facebook page. Whether to increase exposure, communicate with fans or reach recruits, colleges and coaches are increasingly exploring the new frontier of online social networks.

Graham Watson

Social networking (Isn't that redundant, by the way? Is there such a thing as antisocial networking?) is all the rage, allowing people to share vital information about what they ate for breakfast with friends and complete strangers.

In all likelihood you will never meet Ashton Kutcher, but if you choose to follow him on Twitter (@APlusK) you'll get a text message from him. And no, you haven't been punk'd.

Since high school and college students tend to be light-years ahead of the rest of us when it comes to anything involving the word "social," online social networks are especially big among the 16-to-22-year-old set.

And wherever the 16-to-22-year-old set goes, coaches are sure to follow.

"Who knows what the next five years will bring, but whatever it is, we'll figure it out," Providence coach Keno Davis said. "We're always looking for different ways to connect with young men who hopefully will be coming someday to Providence College."

For the most part, Twitter and Facebook have entered the college athletic lexicon without much harm. Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin got himself in some hot water when he tweeted about an unsigned recruit. Of course he's already on the NCAA's speed dial, so no big shock there.

An NC State student was rebuked by the university after starting a Facebook group called "John Wall PLEASE Come to NC STATE." Wall, one of the nation's top high school basketball recruits, signed with Kentucky.

But generally speaking, coaches have tweeted with no more harm or fouls than Looney Tunes' little yellow bird himself might create.

No one expects that to last.

"If it's not already being exploited, somebody will push the envelope," said Gordon Finch, Villanova's associate athletic director for compliance. "It happens all the time, with every rule. Someone pushes the envelope and the NCAA finds them."

Rather than rush legislation to monitor what coaches can and can't do on Twitter and Facebook, the NCAA decided to apply the rules it already had in place to the new fads.

Just as they can't speak about recruits, coaches can't tweet about them. Just like they can't send them unsolicited text messages, they can't write unsolicited messages on Facebook walls.

If it's not already being exploited, somebody will push the envelope. It happens all the time, with every rule. Someone pushes the envelope and the NCAA finds them.

-- Villanova's Gordon Finch

They can, however, send direct messages on either Twitter or Facebook.

Because recruits have to accept friend requests on Facebook or choose to follow someone on Twitter, the NCAA treats private communications on both social networking sites as an e-mail, not a text message.

That's a huge difference. Text messaging isn't allowed; e-mailing is.

"The main thing is, the recipient is in control of what they will and will not receive," said Matt Baysinger, the chair of the National Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), whose group came down against text messaging. "There has been some frustration from coaches and athletic departments because we've gone against text messaging but have said OK to Facebook and Twitter. To us, it's because the prospective student-athlete is in control. No matter what the recruiting tool is, we want it to remain in the control of the student-athlete."

Already, though, some coaches are posting clever tweets about their plans for the day: generic plans that will take them to a generic state where one of the top recruits in the country just happens to be playing.

Rabid fans don't need ballpoint pens to connect the dots.

Or they'll mention that an "important visitor" is coming to campus. That could be Santa Claus, but unless Santa can sink a 3-pointer, it's not likely.

And the fact is, when a coach tweets happy clichés about what makes a good player great, when he wows people with his glad-handing of some important bigwig or some jaw-dropping travel, he's not just trying to impress the 65-year-old season-ticket holder in Section 129. He's trying to impress the 16-year-old waffling between schools X, Y and Z.

"The potential for abuse is there, so education is really important," Finch said.

For people like Finch, social networking has made a cumbersome job even more laborious. It's one more thing to monitor, one more outlet to worry about being misused.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
Chris Williams/Icon SMIAn NC State student ran into trouble with his school and the NCAA after creating a Facebook group pleading for John Wall to play for the Wolfpack.

At Kentucky -- where John Calipari has become such a popular tweeter he's actually listed on Twitter.com's suggested people to follow list -- DeWayne Peevy, the school's associate athletic director for media relations, serves as Calipari's editor. Because each Twitter account can be linked to just one cell phone, Calipari shoots Peevy a text message of his tweet and then Peevy sends it to the masses.

"He's been really good about it, just telling people what he's up to and things like that," Peevy said. "But it's good to have that last buffer to check."

It's not just the coaches who need to be watched. It's the fans as well.

The NC State student that created the Wall fan page got a cease-and-desist letter from the Wolfpack's compliance director.

"It's the same as if you took an advertisement in a newspaper," Huchthausen said. "It's easier and much less expensive to set up a page on Facebook, but the principles are still there. Our goal is to reduce the pressure on prospects and so in that regard, a fan page is no different than a billboard."

Trouble is, that gets a little sticky because the NCAA really has no jurisdiction over a person's personal Web page.

The First Amendment does. The ACLU and other free-speech groups already have come down on the NCAA's attempts to monitor an individual's free expression.

Consequently, the NCAA puts the onus on the college or university.

"We try to educate schools that once they become aware of something like this, they have an obligation to ask the person to stop," Huchthausen said. "But under the First Amendment anyone can do this, so to us, once the institution has asked a person to stop, if he or she refuses, the institution has met their obligation. There is no violation."

Division III schools voted to nix Facebook and Twitter altogether, although Huchthausen said those schools, realizing that Web sites also allow for easy public relations, might change their across-the-board veto.

Maybe Division I will make changes down the road, too.

But for now, college coaches are headed down a new road. And no doubt they'll soon find some decent detours.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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