The NCAA, Twitter, and Recruiting: Pete Carroll May Not Win Forever

I don’t want to be a spoilsport. I like Twitter, and I think it’s going to be an important mode of communication on the Internet as it matures, and users get past the navel-gazing “What are you having for breakfast?” stereotype that’s been seeping into the public.

But I can’t see Pete Carroll, Rich Rodriguez, and others being permitted to stay on the popular microblogging tool-slash-messaging service-slash-worldwide chat room for long.

Not pictured: Carroll's MacBook. (AP)

Not pictured: Carroll's MacBook. (AP)

Before I get to that, I have to talk about texting. (You remember texting, right?) In 2007, the NCAA banned text messaging in recruiting.

The first quote from that article helps articulate why: “One of the abuses that was described to us were text messages from a coach to a player saying, ‘Call me,’” Division I vice president David Berst said on a conference call.

So coaches used text messaging to get around NCAA limits on phone calls from coaches to players by instead getting players to call coaches; that, ingenious as it was, could not be around for long in the NCAA’s world.

The ban has not since been reversed, and, though I’ve heard all manner of complaints from coaches in the SEC over the last two years, with Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin, I’m not aware of any mass texting problems.

Enter Twitter, which can do all the things that text-messaging did, and covertly.

Twitter’s increasingly accessed from the Web or from desktop applications, and you can see USC’s Carroll uses it from the web on his feed and from a MacBook in this (rather humorous) video:

But Twitter has a mobile component, too; when you sign up with Twitter, you have the option of including a phone number, which will allow you to tweet from your cellular telephony device of choice.

And Twitter’s got something called “direct messaging,” which is somewhere in a grey area between email and texting, where this becomes an interesting scenario. Direct messages are viewable only by the sender and recipient, and, if the recipient has an option checked, are sent directly to a phone as a text message.

But a direct message isn’t a text message: It’s a message sent from Twitter. And there’s no prohibition on Twitter under current NCAA by-laws.

Further, if text messaging would be difficult to enforce, at least phone records from coaches would be easy to subpeona if the occasion required them. If deleting direct messages is possible with third-party applications, and Twitter direct messages-to-texts show up as texts from Twitter’s five-digit 40404 number (which they do, at least in my phone), how would Twitter tampering be possible to prove?

The NCAA isn’t exactly the world’s most dynamic body when it comes to reacting to new technology (I believe someone just told Myles Brand what Facebook was last week, and, shockingly, the “NCAA” Twitter account is squatted by someone who appears to like betting or at least care deeply about odds), so there’s no reason to believe that they’re even aware that there are coaches on Twitter.

They would be wise to learn. Twitter’s growing at an absurd rate, and, in an increasingly connected world, it’s laughable to think that there aren’t athletic departments with savvy graduate assistants prodding recruits to “get a Twitter so Coach can talk to you,” and won’t be more by next year. All it takes for a Twitter user to send a direct message to someone is for the recipient to be following the sender.

That means a recruit (or a handler) can set up a dummy account, follow the coach, configure the settings to receive texts on his or her phone from Twitter users, and because it’s totally legitimate for recruits to send texts to coaches, reply and carry on a conversation with the same tools the NCAA tried to ban, perhaps with the same “call me” abuse detailed above.

Twitter’s the middleman that allows this to happen, and I’m sure that there’s no compliance department or NCAA panel in the country that would be able to definitively say it’s anything more than unsavory under the current rules.

“It’s just like enforcing any other rule,” Berst said. “You’re not allowed to buy a kid a hamburger when he goes on the road, but that’s tough to enforce, too. There are many rules that, on the face of them, are unenforceable.”

In banning text messaging, the NCAA tried to burn down the trees, but, with Twitter, coaches can, as always, slip through the forest undetected.

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7 Comments

Filed under Analysis, College Football, Social Media

7 responses to “The NCAA, Twitter, and Recruiting: Pete Carroll May Not Win Forever

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  2. calebcherry

    Interesting thoughts here. However, I think that the darker sides of twitter as it is related recruiting.. the DMs…. dummy accounts, etc.. will have rules to them (to all new social media really) just like the other aspects of utilizing the internet that are heavily regulated: email, IMs, etc.

    Just like the point with buying a kid a hamburger some of this stuff just really can’t be monitored and is really only enforced when someone slips up and talks about it.

    Pete Carroll will gain additional favor with his potential players by using twitter, BUT in a completely legal way. The mere fact that he uses it will, over the years, keep him young and tech savvy to SC recruits the same way knowing he wears Nike and has the newest hot single from iTunes on his iPod will gain favor with recruits.

  3. Actually, a lot of compliance depts are aware of Twitter. Most are saying right now it’s okay for coaches to use it as long as they don’t use the texting feature or instruct a recruit to join Twitter, but guidelines vary by institution since there isn’t NCAA legislation yet. If handled properly, Twitter can be a great marketing and recruiting tool that is 100% within NCAA rules, both by the letter and the spirit of the law.

  4. @Caleb: I’m with you, and I think that’s the best way to use Twitter from on high: As free, humanizing advertising. It’s worked and is working for a host of sports figures, and college football programs are no different.

    @Brittany: That’s good to know, on the compliance department tip; thanks. I would assume there’s legislation forthcoming, and I would hate for it to diminish the fun and useful connections Twitter’s made possible, but I fear that there’s a pitfall coming before things get fully outlined.

    It’s easier to cheat and plead ignorance now than when there are rules etched in stone, you know?

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  6. When college sports became televised the money started to flow. Now these coaches will do absolutely anything to win (and make money). I’m not taking the NCAA’s side on this one(because theyre corrupt too) but these coaches trying to take advantage of every loophole is starting to make me mad.

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