Facebook, recruiting and the NCAA

November, 29, 2010
11/29/10
3:20
PM ET
You have to feel for the NCAA. Every time a new communications technology comes along -- e-mail, text messaging, Skype, Chat Roulette (OK, maybe not Chat Roulette) -- the NCAA has to adapt its recruiting rules to follow suit. Given the sloth with which large and profitable companies adapt to new technology, it's no surprise the NCAA is always stuck behind the curve. I'm behind the curve, and I'm on the Internet 16 hours a day.

Still, excuses aside, the bottom line is this: In recent years, the NCAA's attempts to regulate text communications between coaches and recruits have made little, if any, sense. Text-messaging is illegal; e-mail is unlimited. Direct Twitter messages are seen as e-mail, but if recruits use Twitter's text-messaging-based feature on their phones, direct messages are prohibited like texts. The rules are all jumbled and confusing, when the bottom line -- especially in 2010, and especially for young users of social media applications on smartphones -- text is text is text.

Which brings us to Facebook. The Mark Zuckerberg-run social media giant is yet another in the NCAA's umbrella of semi-regulated communications platforms; Facebook messages have thus far been treated like e-mails by the NCAA's recruiting rules. According to Bylaw Blog's always insightful John Infante, that's about to change.

On Nov. 15, Facebook announced plans to launch a new "modern messaging system" that will seek to combine e-mail, chat, public messaging, and social sharing under one intuitive umbrella. I'm not sure I'd ever use this service, because I kind of hate Facebook at this point (oh, to long for the halcyon days of 2003, when everyone you met was a potential Facebook friend!), but it's not hard to see how it would be a game-changer. From Infante:
Even if it was a fiction, that fiction was still hanging on. Until Facebook created a system that might turn a text message into an email. Or turn an email into an instant message. Or where an email might trigger a “push notification,” a potential intrusion into a prospect’s life that the rules don’t even consider. All in a system that might change the nature of a message not just based on a preference selected by a user, but even by whether the user is logged into a website or not. [...]

When Facebook rolls these changes out to their users, there won’t be time to see how coaches and recruits use these new tools. With any marketing at all, we can expect to see a large number of prospects switch to @facebook.com email addresses right off the bat. That means coaches could find themselves in a position where a prospect is offering a means of getting touch that carries no guarantee that any message is allowed under the rules.

So what's the solution? Change the rules. But don't just tweak them, the way they've been tweaked for texting and Twitter and e-mail and Facebook in the past. Instead, the NCAA needs to change the way we think about getting in touch with recruits altogether:
To fix the rules, we must first acknowledge a couple of things. We must acknowledge that trying to differentiate between different forms of text communication is no longer possible. We must acknowledge that these are the tools prospects want coaches to use to get in touch with them. And we must acknowledge that these tools put prospects in control of who contacts them through confirming friends, blocking users, and other privacy controls.

As it gets more difficult to regulate recruiting based on the medium used or the frequency of contact, the only option left is the time contact occurs. That could mean one of two things. It could mean that after a certain date (say August 1 prior to a prospect’s junior year in high school), there are no limits to how a coach can get in touch with a prospect. Or it could mean that during certain periods (like during a contact period), all recruiting contact is permitted with all prospects, and contact is prohibited outside of those periods.

Neither option is perfect -- when it comes to regulating recruiting contact, there's no such thing as a perfect option -- but both are much more in line with the realities of modern communication.

In 2010, no one (save for tech-blog writer-nerds) is more savvy with Facebook, Twitter, text-messaging, and email than your average high school junior. For example: Over Thanksgiving weekend, I thought I was introducing Foursquare to my buddies' younger siblings; I was promptly told that Foursquare is "stupid." Yes, this anecdotal evidence is irrefutable.

The point is, the kids are all right. They know how to manage their incoming stream of text-based coaching communications no matter the format. They understand that the inbox can be a wonderfully insulated place. It's easy to respond to the messages that matter and easy to ignore the ones that don't. And if you're willing to grant that e-mail use should be unlimited, and that cost is the main reason for regulating text-based communication -- insane cell-phone bills were one of the main reasons the NCAA banned SMS messaging last year -- then you should follow suit with Twitter, Facebook, and the like. (As for phone calls? Many would argue that phone call restrictions are dumb, too. Coaches don't land recruits with extra dials. But the cost issue is still there, and it makes sense.)

The NCAA's attempt to regulate various types of communication is like so many of the organization's policies. It comes from a good place, but it's also severely outdated. In this case, it's also pointless. Let the youngsters use their shiny computer boxes to message with, and ignore, desperate college hoops coaches as they please. Compared to the pre-cell phone, pre-caller ID, pre-everything days of yore, being a high school hoops recruit has in some ways never been easier. And there's no turning back now.

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