Commentary

Keeping up with Twitter

Takes more than 140 characters to sum up rules of tweeting about recruits

Originally Published: March 16, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN Recruiting Nation

First things first. Michigan, Notre Dame and Tennessee, as a result of recent recruiting missteps committed on Twitter by four football players, are not going on probation.

Well, Michigan is already on probation, but that's another story that involves a three-year mess, otherwise known as Rich Rodriguez's stint in Ann Arbor.

The actions of Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, Justin Meredith of Tennessee and Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens and receiver Roy Roundtree won't jeopardize their programs' postseason eligibility. The schools will not lose scholarships because of what happened.

At worst, we're talking about secondary violations, which are commonplace and usually amount to little. Demens and Roundtree sent congratulations over Twitter to Mike McCray after the Trotwood-Madison (Ohio) ESPNU Watch List linebacker committed to the Wolverines on March 6.

Meredith last week congratulated linebacker Ben Boulware, his good friend and former Anderson (S.C.) T.L. Hanna teammate, on Twitter on a new scholarship offer from the Volunteers.

Eifert tweeted two weeks ago that he was eager to meet Jaylon Smith, as the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers linebacker prepared for an unofficial visit to Notre Dame.

The tweets were quickly deleted, but not before NCAA compliance officials at all three schools caught wind of the "heinous" acts. These are minor mistakes, but at Michigan, Tennessee and Notre Dame it's no joke, because member institutions don't mess around with the NCAA rulebook.

The problem is this: Social media is ever-changing. The rules of recruiting are specific and strict -- often too strict, unless you're in favor of regulations on the color, size and design of recruiting materials mailed by schools to a prospect. In general, according to a senior Division I administrator who formerly directed compliance, implementation of NCAA bylaws require three to four years to catch up to society.

Nothing that affects recruiting has changed as fast and dramatically as social media. While several proposals under consideration this year address electronic correspondence between institutions and prospects, NCAA legislation continues to lag in trying to apply old rules to new venues such as Twitter.

As long as the NCAA treats a mention on Twitter or post on a Facebook wall no differently than a quote in the newspaper, headaches will remain. Somewhere in this process -- and there's no easy remedy -- social media needs its own rules, because it's a different animal.

And it's evolving all the time.

"Some of the rules, I'm not going to lie, I think they're pretty dumb," said Aaron Green, a freshman running back at Nebraska who's active on Twitter.

Green, a top recruit in 2011 out of San Antonio, likes to display pride for Texas and his hometown through social media. He offers wishes of luck to his former prep teammates and friends back home.

Three months ago, Nebraska quarterback pledge Tommy Armstrong of Cibolo, Texas, led Steele High School to a berth in a Texas 5A state title game at Cowboys Stadium. Green had met Armstrong more than a year earlier, introduced by Texas running back Malcolm Brown, Green's friend and then a high school teammate of Armstrong.

Yet Green couldn't tweet support to Armstrong if the message was suggestive about recruiting. And the NCAA definition of recruiting, while open to interpretation, is broad.

Most schools educate their athletes on the pitfalls of social media, but Green said no one at Nebraska told him to stay away from issuing a tweet about Armstrong.

"You've just got to be smart," he said.

Easier said than done. Just ask Demens and Roundtree, who potentially violated NCAA bylaw 13.10.2, which restricts "comments before signing" made by any representative of the institution about a prospect.

Roundtree, a fifth-year senior at Michigan, attended the same high school as McCray, but it won't help matters here. Same goes for Meredith. And Eifert, who appeared to violate 13.10.5, which prohibits a school from publicizing the campus visit of a recruit. He played at the crosstown rival of Smith's high school in Fort Wayne.

According to the NCAA, pre-existing relationships mean nothing in this instance.

"There is a strict standard against any [public] recruiting communication/conversation between athletes and recruits, regardless of their relationship," an NCAA spokesperson wrote in response to an inquiry about the social-media issue.

To repeat: Pre-existing relationships don't matter when a college coach or player comments in public on recruiting. The NCAA doesn't care if the prospect is the coach's son or the player's brother.

That comes as news to many college coaches and administrators, who preach common sense in regard to the pre-existing-relationship topic.

Interestingly, not all social-media contact between recruits and current players is off limits.

"There are no rules prohibiting that communication, as long as the student-athletes are not posting recruiting messages," says the NCAA.

No problem if a college athlete tweets a birthday wish to his buddy, the recruit. But when the message involves football, interpretations get murky.

It's a slippery slope, for sure. The subject confounds coaches and administrators. Two BCS-level recruiting coordinators interviewed this week said they remained unclear on this. Where does that leave college athletes?

"I couldn't guarantee you that something hasn't been done wrong here too," said one recruiting coordinator.

The best advice in the current climate?

"We constantly remind our guys who they're broadcasting to and that we want them to keep things in house," UCLA defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure said. "We want to keep family business in the family. As long as it's not affecting the team, we're OK with it."

In other words, don't talk about football -- especially if it involves a recruit -- on social media.

Easy enough? Sure, if you're 40. But for an 18-year-old, this is how the world works.

It's how they communicate. And it's only going to grow more confusing if the NCAA fails to recognize that social media is unlike all other media.