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Fans' Recruiting Pitches Are Catching On

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scott Meyer doesn't consider himself a complicated person. He grew up following University of Maryland football because of its proximity. He attended Good Counsel because of its reputation for providing a quality education. The criteria he used to select his college also were straightforward: It had to be a big school, and had to have a good football program.

Meyer visited Penn State and quickly became enamored with its football coach, Joe Paterno, and Beaver Stadium, where more than 107,000 white-clad fans cheer madly for the Nittany Lions. "It's so easy to fall into all of it," said Meyer, now a senior political science major. "It's everything I could want."

And when it comes to football recruiting, Meyer believes Penn State is everything any top high school prospect could want, too. That's why Meyer reaches out to some of those recruits via online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Maybe, he reasons, if a recruit sees that students from a certain school who aren't associated with the athletic department take the time to initiate a relationship, it might influence that recruit's decision on where to attend.

"When you follow recruiting, you wish you were the coaches going into the houses and telling kids about the tradition," Meyer said. If coaches can't recruit through social networks, he added, "students can do it."

Innocent as Meyer's intentions may be, his actions constitute an NCAA recruiting violation, one schools cannot protect against and one the NCAA cannot closely monitor. Meyer is not the lone culprit by any means. Many top football recruits in the class of 2009 contacted for this story said their Facebook or MySpace accounts have been bombarded in the past year by friend requests and messages from fans across the country. Numerous top men's basketball recruits in the class of 2009 have a following on social networks, as well.

Current students cannot serve as representatives of their schools' athletic interests and thus are not allowed to contact recruits, according to Stacey Osburn, the NCAA's associate director of public and media relations. In fact, NCAA rules state that any individual who is known or should have been known by a member of a school's athletic administration to be "assisting in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes" qualifies as a representative of that institution's athletic interests. Therefore, any fan with a social networking account could possibly cause a violation, not merely those currently enrolled at a school.

"If a school found out this was going on, it would have to self-report it," Osburn said. "The NCAA then would look at the situation within reason." She added that reports of major violations concerning this subject have yet to surface.

According to NCAA rules, electronically transmitted correspondence with recruits or their legal guardians is permissible only in the form of an e-mail or a fax; "all other forms of electronically transmitted correspondence (e.g., Instant Messenger, text messaging) are prohibited." Contact via social networks is "the middle ground of sorts between e-mails and instant messages," said Tim Parker, the senior assistant director of athletics for compliance at Virginia Tech. "It would be impossible to be proactive in a meaningful way on this. All you can do is educate fans on what is and is not permissible."

Some sought-after high school football players called recruiting via social networks unfair; others said they were flattered by the attention. Either way, the trend poses a potentially serious problem for university compliance officers charged with keeping their respective team's contact with recruits above board.

"It makes it exceedingly difficult, no doubt, with the proliferation of what goes on with the Internet," said Mike Karwoski, Notre Dame's associate athletic director for compliance. "If anybody in the country says they know everything that's going on with those sites, they're not telling the truth. They can't. It's impossible."

When it comes to monitoring students' and other fans' contact with recruits through social networking sites, the issue is threefold. Most university compliance departments are small in staff size. Many Division I schools have tens of thousands of students and an exponentially larger base of fans.

So even if compliance officers could gain access to the social networking accounts of each of their school's fans (privacy restrictions prohibit such access), they would not have the time or manpower to ensure no contact was being made with potential recruits.

"Is there a chance that we're going to miss something? Absolutely. I'll be the first one to admit that," said Karwoski, whose compliance staff usually consists of four full-time employees, himself included, and a part-time assistant. "You just hope these people are doing the right thing. I hate to put it in the context of crossing your fingers, but that's what you have to do."

Several compliance officers contacted for this story said attempting to educate their school's coaches -- and their school's fans -- is vital. Most do so through staff meetings for coaches and newsletters for fans.

Meyer said he has not been contacted by Penn State regarding his unofficial recruiting efforts and that he does not see any harm in contacting recruits through social networks so long as it is done "in a sensitive way."

Let's Be Friends

Ohio State fans created a Facebook group for Jaamal Berry, rated by Rivals.com as the No. 7 running back and No. 47 player overall in the class of 2009, after the senior from Miami Palmetto Senior High School visited Ohio State's spring game. The group had 65 members as of last night, and on June 14, one of those members, Travis Taylor, made a post on the group's wall stating his reasons why Ohio State was the best place for Berry to play football.

Taylor, who grew up in Dublin, Ohio, does not attend Ohio State. Rather, he is a sophomore at the University of Arizona. Despite the distance separating him from the team he loves, Taylor said he stays abreast of Buckeyes recruiting by following various message boards and listening to a weekly hour-long radio podcast. That's where he heard about Berry.

"It just shows the kind of fan base [Berry] will have if he goes to Ohio State," Taylor said in a July phone interview. "No other school has a group for him. Our fan base is better than anywhere else."

On July 8, Taylor made another post on the group's wall, this time criticizing Florida and Michigan, two schools also vying for Berry's services.

The group's wall contains 24 total posts, each imploring Berry to come to Ohio State. On Aug. 31, Berry orally committed to the Buckeyes.

Some fans reach out to recruits in a more personal manner. Nine months ago, Xavier Nixon logged on to his MySpace account and saw he had a friend request from a student at West Virginia. Nixon, a senior offensive lineman at Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, N.C., and the No. 39 overall recruit in the class of 2009, according to Rivals.com, accepted the request.

Nixon said he has received a message from the West Virginia student almost daily since then. He said it is among the three or four MySpace messages he gets per day from fans of different schools. A few simply let Nixon know their school is recruiting him heavily. Others tell Nixon their school offers the best opportunity for him to succeed. Some criticize coaches from rival universities.

"It kind of caught me off-guard," said Nixon, who remains undecided on which of his 40 scholarship offers he will accept. "It just shows the dedication they have for their school. It's amazing to see people all over the country, people from California who are North Carolina fans, and it's just crazy that they would contact me to try to get me to go to their school."

Some recruits don't appreciate the extra attention. Morgan Moses, a senior offensive lineman at Meadowbrook High School in Richmond and the No. 12 overall recruit in the class of 2009, said he has received about 50 friend requests and 40 messages from fans on his Facebook account since December 2007.

"It's surprising, but it also gets kind of aggravating a little bit," Moses said. "You go [online] and see a lot of fans saying go here or go there, and a lot of people expect you to go here or go there, but I'm trying to make this decision on my own."

Monitoring Is in Place

Osburn said that if a school were to report a violation regarding fan usage of social networks to contact recruits, the NCAA would try to answer two questions: Did the university in question have a system in place to monitor this type of activity, and was the university responsible in any way for encouraging the students to contact recruits?

Because there have been no reported instances of major NCAA violations regarding social network recruiting, Osburn said the NCAA has established no penalty guidelines for such cases. She said it was likely that secondary violations have occurred but she did not have access to such information.

In April 2007, Penn State administrators instructed two students to shut down a Facebook group the pair had created in an attempt to influence the college decision of high school quarterback Terrelle Pryor. At the time, the group consisted of nearly 1,000 members, and only about one-third of them left the group upon request. In this case, the school made a concerted effort to halt the recruiting violation, and therefore the NCAA did not further investigate the matter.

"We're not different from any other place," Penn State compliance coordinator John Bove said. "We like to believe we are, but unfortunately we have fans that sometimes want to walk the line where if they step to the left, they're in a violation area."

Since the incident with the Pryor Facebook group, Bove said he was not aware of any cases in which Penn State students were using social networking sites to reach out to recruits on such a grand scale.

"In today's age, I wouldn't be surprised if kids at Penn State go home and if they have a great player in their area, tell that player to come to Penn State," Bove said. "On a smaller scale, yeah, that might be going on, but the NCAA understands how difficult this can be, and everyone's pretty reasonable when these things arise."

For schools, the possible consequences of their fans' actions are problematic, but for the fans, the only potential drawback to reaching out to recruits is disappointment if their attempts fail. Meyer considers his contact to be nothing more than a friend telling a friend about a college.

"If he goes to a Penn State rival, that would be unfortunate," Meyer said. "I'll not have to like him as much."

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