Legally or not, college fans are taking to Twitter to help recruit prospects
With reporters all around him at Big 12 Conference Media Day last summer, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called on fans to help him land the next class of talented Sooners.
He wanted them to tweet at recruits.
“You hear that, OU fans?” he said. “We have to get on board.”
Stoops was acknowledging that social media is a huge part of today’s world and that it has become a valuable recruiting tool.
It’s commonplace now for fans to reach out to prospective players on Twitter, which gives them direct access to the athletes. With its public profiles, the social networking service makes it easy to send messages that another user can see.
There’s just one problem. For many of those fans, tweeting at prospects might be an NCAA violation.
Brad Barnes, assistant director of athletic compliance at Texas A&M, said that according to NCAA Bylaw 13.2.1, “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests are not allowed to contact prospective student athletes.”
By strict interpretation of the rule, contact on Twitter between fans and recruits is forbidden. That is a reading echoed in several interviews by people who work with schools, conferences and the NCAA.
According to Barnes, as soon as a fan engages “in recruiting by trying to persuade a prospect, well then – maybe that fan wasn’t a booster before that tweet, but now he is.”
Nonetheless, high school athletes often publicize the schools that they are considering — in essence inviting fans to give their opinions on those choices.
When it comes to Twitter and recruiting, the reality of 21st century life far outpaces NCAA rules.
Cameron Schuh, NCAA director of multimedia communications, said the NCAA relies on the schools themselves to educate their people about potential violations and to report any violations.
The fact is the NCAA doesn’t have the resources to track everything on Twitter.
Many fans don’t even realize they may be breaking the rules, and because the NCAA doesn’t have the ability to police social media, they get away with it.
Kelly Greene, a 45-year-old property manager from the Naples, Fla., area, is an ex-college baseball player who played at what is now Louisiana-Lafayette and knows what it’s like to be recruited. And he can’t imagine going through the process in a world with Twitter.
“To think while I was choosing a school I have all these tons of people writing to me about what to do, that’s got to be mind-blowing for these kids,” he said.
Greene, by the way, admits to being an LSU super-fan and says he would even watch badminton if LSU were playing in it. So, Greene wants to help LSU in any way he can, even if that means doing what he wouldn’t have wanted others to do to him: write LSU recruits on Twitter.
One of Greene’s recent overtures was to five-star safety Hootie Jones (@LJ7_Era), who narrowed his choices to LSU and Alabama before committing to the Crimson Tide on Dec 2.
On Nov. 14, Greene, using the Twitter handle @lsuboy420, said to Jones:
“@LJ7_Era you do know you would play right away with Lsu.go with Alabama you on special teams for 2 years..just sayin.”
Greene continued on Nov. 17, saying: “@LJ7_Era ion give a [expletive] what anyone say.lsu need you bad.”
Greene is just a fan who follows recruiting, loves LSU and wants to see his Tigers land top players. But his tweets could result in an NCAA violation for LSU.
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of,” Greene said when he was told about the rule.
If he had known about the rule, would he have started talking to recruits?
“Hell no,” he responded. “Believe me, the last thing I would take is a chance on losing the player I think we have a chance at getting.”
But knowing what Greene knows now about Bylaw 13.2.1, he won’t stop.
“How the hell could they enforce that? Every school would be in violation.”
Penn State student Eric Sion doesn’t try to persuade any recruits. He just sends tweets of encouragement.
“If a recruit commits or is considering Penn State, I’ll tweet at them a ‘congratulations’ or ‘good luck on your eventual decision,’” Sion said.
With his messages, Sion has come into contact with recruits such as current freshman defensive end Garrett Sickels and safety commit Marcus Allen. Those players have replied to, retweeted and favorited tweets of Sion’s.
Throughout those interactions, Sion knew he might have been breaking the NCAA rule. He also knew he was going to get away with it.
“I don’t see how it can be possible to catch,” he said. “The Twitter world is so big, I don’t know who they would even employ to monitor that kind of stuff.”
At Texas A&M, Barnes said the university is well aware that boosters and fans have access to recruits on Twitter but it doesn’t follow any boosters, fans or high school athletes.
Barnes said his compliance department follows a recruit only if the recruit asks. He said his staff will go back and look at Twitter accounts if there are accusations of rule breaking.
“Do you go fishing for violations in social media?” Barnes said. “The answer is no because you would never stop finding them.”
He added, “The NCAA, I think, understands this is stuff the institution cannot control. How do you hold an institution accountable for @bab129? How do you know that person’s even real?”
Other schools, including Penn State, also realize trying to monitor Twitter would be a losing battle.
Penn State’s athletics director of compliance, Andy Banse, said, “The NCAA expects that each athletic department monitors the activities of student athletes, coaches and fans, which creates quite a burden. We have not monitored any recruit’s social media account, nor do we have plans to in the near future.”
Banse said administrators look at Twitter accounts only when they receive a request to do so. Penn State’s strategy – maybe its only option – for preventing these violations is rules education.
He said that if a fan merely tweeted “#WeAre” to a recruit, it could be considered breaking the rule.
“Our message to the fans would be that contacting prospects in any manner is against NCAA rules,” he said. “We’d also try to explain how the act could put Penn State athletics at risk and could also jeopardize the eligibility of the student athlete.”
Nuisance and opportunity
Twitter isn’t all bad. Toledo’s director of football operations, John Kuceyeski, said that it is another recruiting tool and that coaches’ sending tweets to recruits is no different from their sending text messages.
But from the recruits’ perspective, the attention can be overwhelming.
The flood of tweets that highly touted recruits receive on a daily basis forced one of them, Teryn Savage, to turn off his Twitter notifications and another, De’Andre Thompkins, to call his service provider for help because the volume caused his phone to shut down.
Thompkins, a Penn State wide receiver commit from Swansboro, N.C., agrees that Twitter can be a good thing – and a bad thing. He likes to know that thousands of people know who he is and are encouraging him.
But fans on Twitter also irritate him at times.
“There are an endless amount of people,” Thompkins said. “It feels like all they do is try to persuade you to come to their school. It’s like they don’t have a job, they just try to get you to come to their school. It’s honestly kind of frustrating.”
While Thompkins tries to take it all in stride, he had trouble dealing with two fans in particular.
“There was one fan who messaged me on Twitter every day and was like, ‘Come here, come here, this is the best place, there’s no one else in the nation better.’ Every day it was just constant and aggravating. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Then shortly after tweeting his commitment to Penn State on Oct. 19, Thompkins sent out another tweet that read: “If you don’t agree with my decision just leave me alone.”
Thompkins said his tweet was an indirect response to one fan who told him he just made a stupid decision and his career was over.
According to Thompkins, that same fan later responded, “‘Hey, sorry for what I said, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just a pizza guy from New York.’ ”
“The guy was probably 30 and he’s trying to tell you what you should do about your life,” Thompkins said.
It has become a common Twitter phenomenon for middle-aged alumni and fans to give recruits unsolicited advice on how they should live their lives.
“How often do young people like to be told what to do, especially from adults?” asked Texas A&M’s Barnes. “And how often do people like being told what to do from people they don’t even know?”
Mark Ennis, who covers the Louisville Cardinals for ESPN 680, said fans don’t have much of an impact on recruiting.
“And it makes them really uncomfortable, how powerless they are,” Ennis said, “so now Twitter gives them a place to inject themselves into the recruiting process.”
Ennis is very public on his Twitter account, @Mengus22, about being a Louisville fan. But he said that when it comes to recruiting, if a prospect is choosing between Louisville and in-state rival Kentucky, he would want Louisville fans to do it the right way.
“I think just because Kentucky fans get involved doesn’t mean Louisville fans should, too,” Ennis said. “After a while, it’s the law of diminishing returns. One tweet from @gocats88 is a million tweets from @gocats88.”
Thompkins said he likes Twitter. He found out through tweets that he received a scholarship from Tennessee and an invitation to the Nike Opening, but he said that constantly hearing from fans makes the process harder.
Before Twitter existed, recruits “had it a little bit easier. It wasn’t so easy to find them and contact them and be so negative to them,” Thompkins said.
In Toledo, Kuceyeski said his school was at a disadvantage in the social media world because its alumni and fan base is smaller than, say, Ohio State’s.
“If a kid is picking a school because of social media, I think there’s a lot more issues,” he said. “That’s an issue in itself.”
Cory Nicol, assistant director of player personnel at Northwestern, said Twitter is useful in analyzing a prospect’s character — and what coaches find isn’t always positive.
“It’ll tell you an awful lot about a kid if he likes being recruited by fans,” he said, “especially if he’s one that’s tweeting ‘Hey so and so, I want to get my followers up, what’s up hashtag state nation.’”
For Savage, an uncommitted 2016 wide receiver from Raleigh, N.C., Twitter can skew his view on some schools and fan bases. “It shouldn’t be that way, but it does,” he said.
He said some Kentucky fans tweet at him nonstop every single day, and he’s concerned that if he chooses Big Blue Nation, he will have to deal with those fans in person.
Savage said he doesn’t like the constant interactions through Twitter, although he does retweet fans and respond to some.
“If there’s two schools and only the first one is tweeting at me, then I feel like School B doesn’t really want me. That may not be the case, but that’s just how I would feel,” he said. “There’s people from the other tweeting me every day while this school isn’t tweeting me at all.”
On Dec. 2, Savage sent out a series of tweets that read:
“Florida is back in it for me!!!”
And the Gators fans came tweeting.
“I never guessed it would be like this,” Savage said, and if he could do the process over, he would do it “with no Twitter at all” saying that Twitter is a major distraction and more followers equals more craziness to deal with.
Most of that craziness has come from Kentucky fans, said Savage, including one who offered a graphic description of sex life at the school.
Mike Gesicki, a Penn State commit from Manahawkin, N.J., ranked by several recruiting services as the nation’s best tight end, said the craziest thing tweeted at him was “Come to Rutgers, we got the best dance team in the country.”
Gesicki doesn’t pay much attention to the messages that come from people he doesn’t know. Barnes said it’s hard to tell if the fans behind the Twitter account actually even exist. Others share that thought.
“I’m convinced there’s programs that just have people that create fake profiles of pretty girls,” Kuceyeski said. “Pretty Ole Miss girls saying ‘Hey come to Oxford,’ well, as a high school kid you’re going to say ‘Oh yeah, let’s go there.’
“Who knows who’s doing that? It could be some interns in the office or some student assistants. The fact is the kids love it, they eat it up.”
Said Savage: “Sometimes, you don’t even know who it is. Half the people don’t even have a picture of themselves.”
There is simply no way the NCAA can become the Twitter police for the more than 120-plus major college football teams, let alone the 350 or so Division I basketball schools.
In the modern world, social media and free access to individuals’ lives has taken over. Given the experience of players and compliance officers, it appears that NCAA Bylaw 13.2.1 is broken every day by the average fan, and yet not one school has been punished.
Barnes said that if the NCAA brought the hammer down, the penalty would be that the prospect is ineligible at the school that the fan is representing. “After the institution knows of the violation,” he said, “they would have to go through student athlete reinstatement.”
Based on interviews with school, conference and NCAA officials, there seems to be little or no motivation to tighten enforcement.
The focus at this year’s NCAA convention in San Diego in January was monetary compensation for student athletes. One NCAA representative said there were no plans to discuss amending the current social media rules, noting that any rule the NCAA put in place could quickly be overtaken by technology.
“It wouldn’t stop anything,” Northwestern’s Nicol said. “What kind of sanctions or penalty could you put on the fan? And you don’t want that fan who really has no attachment to the program to affect the program and get the program a violation. It’s Twitter. Everybody has a voice.”
The recruits don’t know the rule exists. They just live their lives openly on Twitter and assume dealing with fans is part of the process.
Upon being informed of the rule, recruits had this to say:
Thompkins: “Oh wow I did not know that.”
Savage: “Wow I never heard of that. I didn’t know that.”
Gesicki: “I didn’t know that one. That’s news to me.”
“It’s a dumb rule,” Toledo’s Kuceyeski said. “Who you going to punish? You can’t expect anyone in the program to be responsible for the actions for 40,000 college students. It’s hard enough for a coach to be responsible for 120 of them. I don’t think you can fix it, I think you scrap it.”
Until then, compliance officers say, fans should leave recruits alone.
“Leave this to the professionals,” Barnes said. “There are coaches at the schools that are paid handsomely to do this and are really good at what they do. They deserve the courtesy to be able to cook their meal on their own. When you are going in and throwing in ingredients or turning the stove up or down when they’re trying to cook a meal, you’re screwing up their job. Maybe you didn’t mean to, your intentions were for all the best, but they’re the ones that are hired to go shop for the ingredients and prepare it, cook it and serve it. When you’re coming in and messing with that process, it’s not something that people want.”
It’s a nice thought, but it may not be enough to stop fans from freestyle recruiting.
“I’ll probably keep doing it,” said Greene, the LSU fan. “I can’t get in trouble anyway.”