Imagine this scenario. A top college football prospect has both a Twitter account a Facebook page. He posts often on his Facebook and tweets just as frequently. His accounts are “open,” meaning anyone can follow and contact him. The fans of one of the schools he is considering decide to “help” him make his decision. So they start a Facebook fan page, addressing the prospect by name and inviting fans to post messages of support and encouraging him to sign with their school. They also post messages to his “wall,” extolling the virtues of their family atmosphere and telling him how great it would be if he signed with their school. Separately, another group of fans of the same school start a Twitter hashtag chain, again addressing him by name, and again inviting other users to help persuade him to choose their alma mater.
The NCAA is ramping up the daunting task of ensuring that universities, coaches fans and boosters don’t run afoul of the league’s recruiting rules by jacking into social media technology. Prospective student-athletes are using Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and Youtube just like 17-19 year olds do. They’re staying connected with friends and family and interacting with the public in a rapidly growing cultural phenomenon. But the social media landscape is rich for potential rules violations and, in at least one case, a school has already been cited for “failure to monitor” after an Enforcement investigation found instances of impermissible behavior.
I was saving this post for publication later this week, but Solomon’s excellent column in today’s Birmingham News has ripened the topic a bit early.
Let’s get some ground rules out of the way.
The University is responsible for insuring that its various constituencies (e.g., University staff and faculty, coaches, student-athletes, alumni and friends) abide by NCAA rules and regulations. Under NCAA rules, all alumni, friends and employees of the University are categorized as "representatives of the University's athletics interests."
NCAA Bylaw 13.02.11 defines the term "booster." In part, the rule states:
"A booster (i.e., representative of the institution's athletics interests) is an individual, independent agency, corporate entity (e.g. apparel or equipment manufacturer) or other organization who is known (or who should have known) by a member of the institution's executive or athletics administration to:
- Have participated in or to be a member of an agency or organization promoting the institution's intercollegiate athletics program;
- Have made financial contributions to the athletics department or to an athletics booster organization of that institution;
- Be assisting or to have been requested (by the athletics department staff) to assist in the recruitment of prospects;
- Be assisting or to have assisted in providing benefits to enrolled student-athletes or their families; or
- Have been involved otherwise in promoting the institution's athletics program.
The emphasized statement above casts a wide net, especially in the age of blogs, message boards, Twitter, Facebook and other social media and networking technology. For example, IBCR is a blog that features content on college sports, NCAA compliance matters, current events and politics. But there is also a lot of material here that would be interpreted as “promoting the athletics program” of the University of Alabama. Technically, the authors of the blog posts here would most likely be interpreted to be Alabama “boosters.”
But where is the bottom of this slippery slope? Would a frequent poster on a fansite’s message board be considered a “booster?” How about someone on Twitter with an avatar and page background prominently featuring a particular university’s athletic program, and who regularly posts Tweets promoting the individual’s favorite team? If that individual has attended games, has season tickets, graduated, attended or currently attends classes at the school or has made financial contributions, the answer is a slam dunk “yes.” But what about a Tweep who just loves the school and the team so much, they can’t help but be “all in?”
Another grey area and potential source of violations are the so-called “recruiting services” that combine information about recruits and recruiting with content favorable to the school they are associated with AND have message boards and chat rooms dominated by the fans of that school. Would the operators/employees of that site be classified as “media,” or “boosters?”
Define any of these people as a “booster” and the potential to pile up NCAA violations regarding contact with prospective student-athletes is staggering.
Several schools are being proactive in addressing these issues. In conducting some research for this post, IBCR reached out to several compliance officers at schools in various parts of the country. What follows is an amalgam of advice being given by schools to fans and boosters in the form of do’s and don’t’s:
- THINK BEFORE YOU TWEET! Breaking NCAA rules can render prospects and student-athletes ineligible for competition at the University you support. The NCAA holds the University accountable for the actions of fans and friends. In some cases, impermissible fan/booster behavior will cause the school to cease recruitment of the prospective student-athlete.
- You MAY NOT make recruiting contacts with prospects, relatives, legal guardians or “mentors.” This prohibition includes written and telephone communications and social media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
- You MAY NOT contact a prospect via social media and encourage them to enroll at the school you support, even if you don’t think you qualify under the definition of the term “booster.” Assume that you meet that definition and avoid contacting prospects.
- You MAY NOT contact a prospect’s coach, principal, or counselor in an attempt to evaluate the prospect.
- You MAY NOT become involved in arranging for a prospect, a student-athlete, their family or high school coaches to receive gifts, money or financial benefits of any kind. This includes organizing or participating in the creation of fan sites designed to raise money or collect donations of any items of value.
- You MAY NOT provide transportation to a prospect, student-athlete or their friends and family.
- You MAY NOT spend funds to entertain prospects, student-athletes or their friends and family.
- You MAY send newspaper clippings and other information about talented prospects to the coaches at your institution.
- You MAY continue established relationships with friends and neighbors whose children are prospects or current student-athletes, provided the relationship pre-dates reaching prospect status and is not based on their status as an athlete.
Boosters are subject to very strict limitations on their contact with prospective student-athletes. Only the authorized coaches may recruit on behalf of the institution. This promotes competitive equity by ensuring that every program has the same number of people available to recruit for their program. Boosters are not permitted to recruit prospective student-athletes on behalf of the institution. These limitations extend to social media.
Unfortunately, the fanbases of many large FBS programs aren’t getting the memo. The Facebook walls and Twitter timelines of prospects are slap full of potential NCAA recruiting violations.
It is a violation of NCAA rules for a booster to contact a prospective student-athlete by Twitter or Facebook to encourage them to attend their favorite school. It is also impermissible for boosters or fans to create or organize a fan page or Twitter hashtag chain in order to encourage a specific prospect to attend their school. A Facebook fan page called “State Fans Love Johnny Linebacker” is against the rules. So too is participating or organizing a “#Tigers4Jake” Twitter hashtag chain. Because the institution is held responsible for the conduct of its boosters, doing so would require the University to self-report a violation of NCAA rules, and could result in the school ceasing its recruitment of the prospect.
In the hypothetical scenario leading off this column, the school would do just that. It would be forced to self-report a violation of impermissible contact and break off recruiting contact. That increases the likelihood that the prospective student-athlete signs with the hated rival of the school that the fans were promoting. Congratulations, zealots. You just pushed a potential future Heisman Trophy winner and leader of a National Championship contender right into the arms of your most despised rival. That would totally suck, wouldn’t it?
Later today, the Dark Side of social media and college athletics.