- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

The NCAA has a message for its college coaches - think before you tweet.

It’s a lesson some coaches, such as Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin, have learned the hard way.

In May, a personal assistant created a post on Kiffin’s Twitter account that referred to a recruit. That, according to the NCAA, is a no-no. The NCAA doesn’t permit college coaches to discuss unsigned recruits in any medium. So when Tennessee officials heard about Kiffin’s tweet, the school reported it to the NCAA as a secondary violation.

But if Kiffin searched the NCAA rule book for the bylaw dealing with Twitter - or Facebook or MySpace, for that matter - he wouldn’t find it.

The NCAA, rather than deal specifically with social networking Web sites, has tucked them into existing rules. Sites are regulated under Bylaw 13.4.1.2, which bans all forms of electronic transmission between coaches and recruits, aside from e-mails and faxes.

“We don’t have a specific bylaw that says what [coaches] can and can’t do on Twitter, but we have recruiting bylaws that say what they can and can’t do in general terms,” said Cameron Schuh, an NCAA associate director of public and media relations. “We use the new social networking medium in relation to them.”

Coaches and their staffs can make mistakes on Twitter. The NCAA bylaws exist to keep them from making a mess.

However, the clutter sometimes is difficult to clean up.

Twitter is tricky because it constantly changes. Founded in 2006, the site lets anyone with an account post updates -tweets - of 140 characters or less. By “following” other users, anyone can read and reply to posts. There also is a direct messaging feature. As the technology has changed, more people tweet from iPhones and Blackberrys instead of their personal computers, making the NCAA’s policy more difficult to enforce.

Despite the innovations to Twitter and other sites, Schuh is confident the NCAA and its member institutions can keep up.

“To be perfectly honest, we don’t feel that it is hard to keep up with the times,” Schuh said. “We strongly emphasize that the individual institutions are up to speed. They are the ones that oversee their own properties on a daily basis more than we do.”

A lot of that responsibility rests with coaches to think wisely before they post.

George Mason men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga spends most of his time on Twitter writing about friends, basketball, family and, recently, his hip replacement surgery.

“I try to keep things on a professional level, for instance, about the things I’m doing in relationship to coaching and preparation for next season,” Larranaga said. “On my Twitter, I stay away from talking about anything specifically. I don’t talk about the specifics of recruits or anything like that.”

An avid Twitter user, Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese said the site hasn’t quite caught on with recruits. But she still finds value in using it.

“Anybody who wants accessibility to your program can instantly get a sneak peek into it and into who you are as a coach,” Frese said. “We haven’t seen as many recruits following… the craze as of yet.”

That changes when those athletes arrive on campus.

Since the NCAA enforces no specific bylaws regarding social networking sites, the onus is on universities to generate their own policies for student-athletes. Twitter is the third-most popular site behind Facebook and MySpace.

Facebook has created problems for a number of schools. Most of the incidents on Facebook have concerned “tagged” photographs of student-athletes performing various illegal activities like hazing or underage drinking.

Student-athletes are expected to use discretion before they post on Facebook. An incident from the University of Texas provides a textbook example of a student-athlete who didn’t - and the consequences he suffered.

On Nov. 4, Buck Burnette, a backup center on the football team, wrote a Facebook status update that included a racial slur against President-elect Obama. Later that week, Burnette was kicked off the team for “unspecified violations of team rules.”

Schuh noted that, while the NCAA exists to help monitor incidents, it is often up to the individual institution to report violations.

“We expect that schools will look at the issue and do what they feel is necessary at the time,” Schuh said. “Not all incidents are reported to us because sometimes the school has confronted and handled the situation.”

In order to prevent further incidents, universities around the country have taken different routes regarding Facebook and MySpace.

Maureen Nasser, the director of communication and public relations at George Mason, said the athletic department attempts to make students aware of the hazards of social networking sites.

“We try to educate them as much as we can about the consequences,” Nasser said. “Everybody puts themselves out there when you post stuff on Facebook. That’s the danger of how fast news travels when you post something on Facebook. Whether it’s good or bad, it travels fast.”

In 2006, Kent State temporarily banned its student-athletes from the site, in part because several female student-athletes were being stalked through it. The school later instituted a policy requiring student-athletes to “friend” at least one of their assistant coaches.

Laing Kennedy, Kent State athletic director, said both the student-athletes and the administration are satisfied with the new policy.

“We monitor from a safety standpoint,” Kennedy said. “Each year, we meet once or twice with the student-athletes and we talk about the responsibility that they have with their friends. They have accepted the policy very well.”

Loyola University in Chicago also has taken cautionary measures regarding social networking sites, urging its athletes not to post any personal information, including photos.

“Any questionable information posted or depictions of illegal activities, such as drug use, underage drinking or hazing, could lead to dismissal from your athletic team and loss of athletic scholarship along with applicable university sanctions being enforced,” Carolyn O’Connell, a senior associate athletic director at Loyola, explained via e-mail.

Some students have even landed in the kind of hot water usually reserved for coaches. In April, N.C. State freshman Taylor Moseley created a Facebook group called “John Wall PLEASE come to NC STATE!!!!” in reference to Wall, the top-ranked high school point guard in the country. More than 700 people joined the group; Wall, who had listed the Wolfpack as one of his final choices, eventually signed with Kentucky.

However, the group violated NCAA regulations, specifically Bylaw 13.02.13. By creating the Facebook group, Moseley became a “representative of the institution’s athletic interests.”

Moseley received a letter from Michelle Lee, N.C. State’s associate athletic director for compliance, warning him to shut down the group, and he did.

His case shows how important it is for the NCAA to remain up-to-date on social networking advancements on the Internet. It also exemplifies how technology and the NCAA’s rules and enforcement could be continually at odds. Twitter and Facebook will continue to change, not to mention whatever social networking site pops up next.

For now, the NCAA isn’t concerned with keeping up to speed with hand-held and Web-based technology.

“We don’t feel that we are ‘behind’ the technology,” Schuh said. “The topic of social networking sites is being talked about quite a bit with our recruiting cabinet and different committees.”

However, Schuh said if universities demanded new bylaws for social networking sites, the NCAA would listen.

“If a school feels it is necessary to get the topic in the manual and address the situation specifically, we can propose new legislation,” Schuh said. “I’m not saying that there won’t be future bylaws that specifically speak to [social networking sites].”

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