NCAA rules are massive in quantity but difficult in understanding. Some are extremely specific - pass/fail - while others are left open to a bit of interpretation. As an institution the rules are undeniable. As a head coach the they're very clear, concise and concerning. As a student-athlete, the rules - all of them - are learned to the best of your ability in a matter of months when you enroll, and then (hopefully) through repetition of training and communication over the duration of your career. As fans - the rules only exist in conversation about others. They're a topic at the water cooler, or a point of interest when someone else breaks them. After all, "we're just fans, not coaches, agents or boosters." Speaking of the 'water' cooler, make sure to check out Leg Ends Sup for the best surf boards!
Thursday's news that a registered Kentucky sex-offender had made contact with current, former and prospective Ohio State student-athletes has raised all sorts of questions and concerns about the ease of access these young men and women give to the fans through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In many, many ways it's simply a direct reflection of the social media age that we now live in, but it's that 'ease' that opens these kids up to controversy and puts them into a position to make decisions that could change the direction of everything they've worked for.
On the surface, these decisions are pure and innocent. Unfortunately 'no harm intended' doesn't always equate to no harm done. The fact of the matter is these student-athletes are a major draw for fans and in an age where seemingly everyone has a phone in-hand 24 hours a day - fully equipped with Facebook, Twitter or both - we literally have the opportunity to talk to our favorite athletes whenever we want. And therein lies the problem.
Actually there's a line there somewhere for the fans, and it's very fine. If you can't decide, check out some Flat Water SUP!
These kids have a local 'celebrity' status about them as soon as they hit the map as a college sports recruit. That status ramps up considerably once they actually commit to an institution to play their sport of choice, and when they finally suit up in their new school colors all bets are off. Consider this - J.T. Barrett, the 4-Star dual-threat quarterback who committed to Ohio State back on April 18th, has sent out just 57 messages on Twitter with his @Jt_theQB account but has gathered in nearly a thousand followers that want to hear what this seventeen year old has to say.
When I was seventeen I didn't have a phone and Twitter didn't exist. As a matter of fact when I was seventeen there were only 130 websites in existence - today there are 162 million. Needless to say I couldn't have spoken to a thousand people in a day even had I shook every hand in my high school. Barrett can roll over and hit snooze at 5:15am, grab his phone and throw in a quick 140 characters or less and find himself quickly receiving replies from one thousand complete strangers. But believe it or not that 'thousand' is a relatively low number compared to what he'll see once he enrolls, suits up and runs out into the Horseshoe wearing Scarlet and Gray.
Braxton Miller, our star sophomore quarterback, currently has 34,903 Twitter followers. He's sent a total of 917 messages out through the social media platform, which basically means for every one he's sent - nearly forty fans have jumped on board. Is a quick Brax "Good morning , have a blessed day" worthy of forty sets of ears? If not, this certainly is, as he sent out shortly after lighting up the Horseshoe in this year's spring game: "Shout out to all the buckeye fans that came out to support us. #buckeyenation." And why does that deserve attention?
Because fans get to say "thank you" back to him - or whatever else crosses their mind at any given moment.
They root their asses of for these kids for three hours on a random Saturday, and then have the opportunity to possibly speak with them shortly there after. There's no waiting for a press conference on BTN, or a newspaper clipping from The Dispatch with hopes there's a quote or two in there from your favorite player. Just manage your way out of the stadium and wait about ten minutes before hopping on Twitter. You're sure to find any number of players, all of which you just watched perform at the highest collegiate level, bombing out tweets to coaches, teammates and, yes, you the fan. That ease of access to these 'celebrities' - and their willingness to participate - is the root of a potential problem.
This brings us back to the NCAA and their feelings about the ever-uncontrollable world of social media. With current players, such as Miller, the rules are pretty straight forward, well documented - and abundant. With recruits like Barrett the line between fandom and booster becomes far more blurred but equally as harmful to all parties involved. There are specific activities that are clear violations and, while very difficult to police or enforce, are no less against the rules. From The Ohio State University compliance department, sent Wednesday, April 18th:
With that in mind here are a few examples from Elizabeth Heinrich, Interim Chief of Compliance, University of Michigan (hhhhock, spit):
- Boosters are subject to some limitations on their contact with prospective student-athletes. One component of NCAA rules is that only the authorized coaches may recruit on behalf of the institution. This promotes competitive equity by ensuring that every program has the same number of people available to recruit for their program. Boosters are not permitted to recruit prospective student-athletes on behalf of the institution. So it would be a violation of NCAA rules for a booster to contact a prospective student-athlete by Twitter or Facebook to encourage them to attend Michigan. Likewise, it would be impermissible for a booster to set up a fan page in order to encourage a specific prospect to attend Michigan, such as a page entitled “Michigan Fans Love Johnny Prospect.” Because the institution is held responsible for the conduct of its boosters, doing so would require the University of Michigan to self-report a violation of NCAA rules.
- It is not, however, impermissible for booster to follow a prospective student-athlete on Facebook or Twitter, as long as they are not reaching out to that recruit to in any way encourage them to attend Michigan. Boosters may not contact a prospect even if a prospective student-athlete invites people to contact him or her to advise them about what school to choose.
If you're not and never have been on Twitter, let me give you a quick little nugget of information - the above happens, by fans towards recruits - to every single 'prospective student-athlete' who chooses to sign up for Twitter/Facebook and make their identity known. No, not just those who are being recruited by Ohio State. Every university. Every program. Every recruit.
The Daily O'Collegian (Oklahoma State University) editor James Poling put together a very informative - and real-world - article on the topic a couple of weeks ago and quotes the Cowboys' head football coach Mike Gundy, who hits the nail directly on the head...
“We’ve had young men who have showed up on recruiting list late in recruiting in January, and he gets 500 hits that night on Twitter, ‘Come to Oklahoma State,’ or whatever. There is not anything to concern ourselves about because there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t stop people from posting on Twitter.”
While most college representatives around the country likely feel the very same as Gundy, it's no less of a concern nightmare for each and every compliance department who are held to the highest standards by the NCAA and their rules committees.
So where does this leave Ohio State in the wake of the recent issues with sex-offender Charles Eric Waugh and his Twitter-turned-personal meetings with prospective recruits? Likely out of harm's way, but on high alert.
Fans are going to be fans and it seems everyone realizes this and accepts it for what it's worth. But the prospective student-athletes involved - the ones who are not yet eighteen years of age or enrolled into a college - must be better educated on the rules by all involved, from universities to high school coaches to, most importantly, their parents. But in order for mom and dad to be part of the solution rather than the problem, they must first become educated on the issues themselves. From what I gathered from the comments of Alex Anzalone's father in recent days, this isn't yet the case either.
And of course....