- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Friday that the athletic department had a fake online persona befriend players to teach them a lesson on the dangers of online relationships for athletes in the public eye.
Speaking at the KeyBank Global Leaders Forum in Toledo, Ohio, Brandon outlined how the athletic department used an attractive woman to befriend athletes online and then advise them on potential dangers of their interactions.
Michigan hired Florida-based 180 Communications -- a group specializing in media training, with an additional focus on social media -- for a presentation in fall 2011.
Brandon's comments aligned with those made by football coach Brady Hoke in January.
"Before (the consultant) came in, we gave him 20 Facebook accounts of guys on our team," football coach Brady Hoke told a large group of high school coaches in January, according to MLive.com. "He had his assistant -- she tried to talk to our guys. 'Hey, what are ya doin'?' Whatever it might be. Well, two months later we're in a team meeting and we're on the topic of what you put out there in the cyber universe ... you should have seen 115 guys when that young lady -- she was hot, now; a very, very nice-looking young lady -- when she walked into that meeting room, and the guys looking at each other.
"Because some of them didn't use their heads when communicating back and forth with that young lady."
Fake online profiles garnered media attention after it was revealed that a man posed as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's online girlfriend. This practice of online hoaxing is popularly referred to as "catfishing," but Michigan spokesman Dave Ablauf told ESPN.com that Brandon never used the word "catfishing" in his speech Friday.
"We use it as an educational process," Ablauf told the Detroit News. "It wasn't catfishing. It's being misconstrued. They didn't go to that extent (like Te'o's situation). There was no interaction like a catfish."
Ablauf told ESPN.com the company did not engage "in behind-the-scenes communications to try and get tweets or posts or anything like that," which men's basketball captain Josh Bartelstein confirmed.
"They never talked to us," Bartelstein said."They were just doing it to see our Facebook profile. They never tried to talk to us or meet up."
Ablauf said 180 Communications "has a female on their staff who basically friends student-athletes within our programs, whether it is on Facebook or follows them on Twitter. Once she gets access, she goes through the accounts and looks at them for anything that would be inappropriate or not for public consumption or anything that could be misconstrued as inappropriate."
The first visit to campus by 180 was in the fall of 2011. The initial presentation was made only to football players, who were separated into offensive and defensive groups. During that same trip, 180 also spoke with the men's and women's basketball teams.
"The presentation is in regard to personal branding, how that fits within the framework of your team structure," Ablauf said. "And a big component is not only dealing with media but obviously dealing in the public space and with social media."
Former football player Elliott Mealer remembered sitting in the team room during the presentation when they were shown a picture of an attractive woman on a projector screen, asking which of the football players knew her.
"Nobody raised their hand," Mealer said. "They say, 'Well, some of you claim to know her on Facebook.' ... All of a sudden, she walks down the stairs to the front floor of our meeting room and it was just like, 'Oh, my God!' "
This fall the company returned to campus to speak with all of Michigan's student-athletes about a range of topics.
And again during the meeting -- which was split up by freshmen and upperclassmen -- the company showed photos of a woman and a man who had "friended" on Facebook or followed on Twitter various student-athletes of the opposite gender.
"What we are trying to do, and this is the overriding theme of everything, we are trying to educate our student-athletes, and it goes beyond their four years at the University of Michigan," Ablauf said. "Everything they do today impacts them, will impact them beyond their career at Michigan. Any tweet, any Facebook post can have an impact on their future because future employers are looking at how they conduct themselves in these social spaces."
Wide receiver Roy Roundtree said he and many of his teammates learned from the experience.
"Some lady was sending stuff to everyone and some guys were adding random people to their Facebook account," he said. "The lady was working for the social media. Everyone who contacted her in the message were exposed. It was funny because a lot of guys were hitting her up and they didn't know what she looked like and never met her before."
Roundtree said most of those "exposed" as contacting the woman were underclassmen.
"A lot of laughter but at the end of the day they realized you can't just do that," he said. "It was great they had them in and talk to us."
Mealer said the company had suggested creating personal Facebook pages and accepting friend requests only from family members and close friends or making Twitter pages private so that users must request to follow the individual.
The company used real examples of former professional and college athletes who had been fired, fined or publicly embarrassed because of comments or photos they had posted on social media websites.
Lee Gordon, vice president of corporate communications for 180, said the company works with with 15 to 20 colleges a year, as well as NFL and MLB teams. This past weekend 180 worked with rookies preparing for the NFL draft.
"What a lot of college athletes don't get and don't realize is that they have a lot of power and influence," Gordon said. "Some of them have 10,000 followers, some have 200,000 followers. People eat these words, they hang on to every word. ... (We're) making sure you're not breaking news you shouldn't break or making news you shouldn't be making."
Good judgment was the main lesson being preached at Michigan, but for 18- to 22-year-olds who have grown accustomed to sharing their lives on these platforms, sometimes it's difficult.
"I think the meeting was definitely a wake-up call for a lot of people about the repercussions of not being smart online," former Michigan women's soccer player Haley Kopmeyer said. "There was a lot of embarrassment in the room when the photos were revealed of the fake (Facebook) profiles, and you knew people around you had received those requests and maybe even responded to them."
Michael Rothstein of WolverineNation contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.