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Confusion over whether coaches can access recruiting websites reigns supreme
Four months after the NCAA issued an interpretation to clarify the definition of a recruiting service and legislate access to popular fan websites for member institutions, confusion and frustration over the issue still reign among football programs.
Several compliance and football operations officials surveyed by ESPN.com said their programs have cancelled paid or comped subscriptions to Rivals.com, Scout.com and other online publications that provide data about recruiting prospects.
Yet some programs took no action after the April 1 interpretation at the recommendation of their conference or school compliance officials, who sought more guidance from the NCAA.
Even as the NCAA grapples with high-profile enforcement cases, the issues that surround fan-friendly recruiting services loom for many programs hungry to gather data on potential future signees.
"There's just so much gray area out there, and I really don't know how we're going to get our hands around it totally," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last month at Big Ten media days. "At the end of the day, it gets down to the integrity of the individuals involved.
"A lot of things are hard to control. You just can't do things that are wrong. We all know what's right and wrong."
On this much, football programs and the NCAA agree: Bylaw 13.14.3, at the time of its 2002 adoption, was not intended to dictate the use of sites like Rivals.com for college coaches and officials. It restricts access today, though, but presents problems, according to several representatives of FBS programs.
"Not reasonably enforceable," said a response to the ESPN.com questionnaire from Georgia Tech.
"Hard to enforce, hard to monitor," wrote an official from Florida Atlantic.
From North Texas: "Not sure they are reasonably enforceable on a consistent basis."
The rule, as interpreted by the majority of schools, prohibits access to college coaches of all premium content on sites that charge for nonscholastic video -- video from camps, combines, all-star games or workouts.
Football and basketball programs often use these sites to collect information about prospects, notably updates on recruiting activity and measurables such as height and weight.
The NCAA declined to answer specific questions about recruiting services but provided a written response to ESPN.com, saying that numerous membership groups have discussed and support the legislation, including the Football Issues Committee and the Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet.
Shane Lyons, chair of the NCAA legislative committee and associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, sat on a committee that recently lifted the ban on nonscholastic premium video for all sports other than football and basketball.
He has not dealt with other aspects of Bylaw 13.14.3.
"The way I understand it," Lyons said, "if they offer [nonscholastic] video and it's packaged with other content, you can't subscribe to it, because it doesn't meet our criteria."
The problem with recruiting services surfaces when they operate as third-party aides, Illinois coach Ron Zook said. Several third-party scouting services rose to prominence this year for charging thousands of dollars to provide college programs with information about prospects.
"That's the issue the NCAA is trying to [address]," Zook said, "and I don't have the answer to that."
Sites like Rivals.com or Scout.com generally charge $10 per month for a subscription. ESPN.com has offered nonscholastic video as part of its ESPN Insider package, and will continue to offer both public and premium content of all types around college recruiting.
Gerry Ahern, managing editor of colleges for Yahoo Sports, which owns Rivals.com, said after the most recent interpretation that the ruling in no way affects the ability of his company to provide content for subscribers.
Video available to the public for free is unrestricted for college coaches to view.
"OK, I can't use Rivals; I'll use YouTube," Zook said. "How do you regulate everything?"
At Illinois, Zook said, his staff plans to use the fan sites until its current subscription expires.
The bylaw was previously explained in an NCAA interpretation issued in April 2009 and addressed in educational material published in March 2009 and May 2010. Initial legislation targeted services in basketball that could offer a recruiting advantage for programs that aligned with third-party operators.
The NCAA, in its latest interpretation, issued by the academic and membership affairs staff, did not mention specific websites; however, it appears many are covered by the legislation, blurring the line significantly between recruiting services and traditional media.
The rulings appear to generate more uncertainty than clarity. And the issue itself has been over-legislated, several coaches said.
"These are some of the things that are ridiculous," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Let's create policy that impacts everybody across the board."
Per NCAA protocol, the organization does not advise member institutions on specific compliance decisions. Schools interpret bylaws as they deem appropriate and report potential violations to the NCAA.
A Colorado State official, replying to ESPN.com, wrote that "there will be, what, 300 secondary violations reported by schools that subscribe" to recruiting services.
All of it likely creates a difficult situation for compliance officials and NCAA enforcement personnel, busy as ever in today's climate of major investigations.
A football staffer at school with multiple BCS bowl appearances in the past decade agreed with others on difficulty of enforcing a rule about fan sites. Additionally, said the staffer, who requested anonymity, the NCAA rulings have not made it clear how member institutions are expected to act.
"There has been poor communication about this subject to universities," the staffer wrote.
Other schools said the NCAA has communicated adequately about recruiting services.
More evidence that when it comes to recruiting services, the consensus is this: There is no consensus.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter @mitchsherman