On Monday, November 15, 2010, Facebook made the NCAA recruiting rules obsolete. No one would have argued the rules were perfect before that date, but they still worked well enough. And one company didn’t do all the damage overnight. This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Because on that Monday, Facebook introduced a new messaging system that blends email, text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking. And with that announcement, the NCAA membership is forced to come up with a new paradigm for how we regulate recruiting.
Much of the backbone of the NCAA’s regulation of recruiting contact is based on the medium a coach uses to get in touch with a prospect. An email is seen as different than a text message (email is unlimited starting with the junior year of high school, text messaging is prohibited). A voicemail is seen as different than an audio file sent via email (voicemails are treated like phone calls, audio attachments are mostly prohibited). Videoconferencing is treated like a phone call rather than face-to-face contact.
Social networking has always had to fit into these definitions. If a message looks like email, it’s regulated like email. If a conversation looks like instant messaging, it goes into that pigeonhole. Not to mention that social networking introduces a much more nuanced approach to the idea of public vs. private messaging.
It may seem like tortured logic to say that Twitter direct messages were like email, and thus permissible to prospects who had started their junior year. It might make you scratch your head further to learn that if the prospect received updates of those messages via text messaging, they suddenly became impermissible.
Even if it was a fiction, that fiction was still hanging on. Until Facebook created a system that might turn a text message into an email. Or turn an email into an instant message. Or where an email might trigger a “push notification,” a potential intrusion into a prospect’s life that the rules don’t even consider. All in a system that might change the nature of a message not just based on a preference selected by a user, but even by whether the user is logged into a website or not.
Facebook isn’t the first to try and meld different types of communication together. Google Wave could have resulted in sweeping change to the NCAA rules by melding email, instant messaging, chat, and document collaboration into one. Another Google product, Google Voice, mixes phone calls and text messaging with email.
The reason Facebook’s announcement disrupts the recruiting rules in a way those Google products never have is Facebook’s user base. With a few lines of code, Facebook could push these changes to over 500 million people. Besides sheer numbers, the most active users of Facebook have always included the same target demographic as college coaches: high school and college students.
When Facebook rolls these changes out to their users, there won’t be time to see how coaches and recruits use these new tools. With any marketing at all, we can expect to see a large number of prospects switch to @facebook.com email addresses right off the bat. That means coaches could find themselves in a position where a prospect is offering a means of getting touch that carries no guarantee that any message is allowed under the rules.
To fix the rules, we must first acknowledge a couple of things. We must acknowledge that trying to differentiate between different forms of text communication is no longer possible. We must acknowledge that these are the tools prospects want coaches to use to get in touch with them. And we must acknowledge that these tools put prospects in control of who contacts them through confirming friends, blocking users, and other privacy controls.
As it gets more difficult to regulate recruiting based on the medium used or the frequency of contact, the only option left is the time contact occurs. That could mean one of two things. It could mean that after a certain date (say August 1 prior to a prospect’s junior year in high school), there are no limits to how a coach can get in touch with a prospect. Or it could mean that during certain periods (like during a contact period), all recruiting contact is permitted with all prospects, and contact is prohibited outside of those periods.
The former is the easier to implement and brings greater benefits. Tying phone calls, emails, and text messages into the recruiting calendar means significant additional legislation. Some sports do not have enough time for communication in their existing recruiting calendars to allow for effective recruiting. And other sports don’t have recruiting calendars at all. Plus allowing significant contact in the junior year reduces the influence of handlers and gives coaches a chance to catch up with agents who are identifying and contacting athletes at younger and younger ages.
The idea is not without drawbacks. Opening up recruiting tends to favor prospects whose families are more prepared to deal with college coaches. One of the reasons text messaging was banned was because coaches were running up massive cell phone bills for prospects who did not have unlimited text messaging plans. That is alleviated some as communication moves to a model where coaches just get the message onto a prospect’s radar and the prospect chooses how and when to receive it.
More early contact also means more early scholarship offers and more early commitments. Hopefully the promise of unlimited contact in the junior year will reduce commitments by sophomores. A drastic solution would be to remove the early signing period entirely. That would mean more time in the recruiting process at the back-end, more time for a committed prospect to realize he or she is missing out on face-to-face contact with coaches and official visits.
Whatever solution the membership ultimately chooses, it needs to be acknowledged that the assumptions many of the recruiting rules are based on no longer apply. It’s time to treat it all contact that isn’t face-to-face as the same cheap, flexible, and valuable way for prospects to get the information they need to make a good decision and for coaches to connect directly with the people they should be selling their programs to.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.