If You Can’t Beat ‘Em… Change the Rules – Regulating Social Media

The other night I was settled into my couch and flipping through the channels on my television. Not looking for anything in particular, I settled for ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Actually, that’s a complete lie. Nobody “settles” for “Shark Tank.” That would be like “settling” for a Chuck Norris movie. I guess you could say I was “lured in.”

Anyway, after the first couple of hacks were finished peddling their silly ideas, two sharply dressed men showed up asking for a pretty large sum of money for a very small stake in their company. Usually, this means they are about 30 seconds or so from being shown the door. However, this time was different.

These two men had created an online service called “Jump Forward” for college athletic coaches and high school athletes. Jump Forward essentially simplifies and enhances the recruiting process, allowing both coaches and high school athletes to create profiles and browse others. A sort of e-harmony to make sure each athlete finds the coach of his or her dreams, and vice versa.

The interesting thing about Jump Forward is that it holds a patent for a mobile application that ensures that communication between coaches and players stays within the strict recruitment rules set forth by the NCAA. If a coach has already reached a limit for a particular form of communication with an athlete, the service will prevent said coach from sending another message or making another call.

Intrigued with this idea, I searched the Internet news wires for other instances of social media infiltrating the “protected” bubble of collegiate athletics. The results were not hard to find:

  • On February 17, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) entered into an agreement with athlete-to-coach social networking site, Eporro.com.
  • University of Michigan Head Football Coach Rich Rodriguez offered 6′5″ 355 pound offensive tackle, Aundrey Walker, a full-athletic scholarship via Aundrey’s Facebook page.
  • Ex-Tennessee Head Football Coach Layne Kiffin prematurely announced the commitment of defensive end J.C. Copeland on Twitter, an NCAA recruitment violation.

The integration of social media into the collegiate athletics recruiting process is really quite interesting. NCAA rules regarding communication in general between coaches and athletes are extremely strict, complicated and constantly changing. The development and growth of social media makes creating and enforcing these rules all the more difficult.

In one of its more definitive decisions, the NCAA completely banned coaches from sending text messages to recruits in 2007. However, the explosion of social media has blurred even this rule a bit. Division I and II coaches are permitted to communicate with prospect athletes via one-on-one messaging from social networking sites (Division III banned all social networking for recruiting purposes in 2007). But what if the recruit chooses to receive the coach’s “approved social network communication” on his or her phone, as a text?

Perhaps Illinois Head Football Coach Ron Zook had the right idea when he said, “I’m not sure the NCAA understands exactly what [social media] is … I sure don’t.”

It is slightly amusing to consider the fact that the athletes being recruited probably have a better handle on social media and mobile communications than the regulating body that makes the rules and drops the hammer when the rules are broken. Then there are the poor coaches are stuck in the middle, wondering, “Should I Tweet or should I go” (on a traditional house visit).

I think the NCAA gets it right, for the most part. The ban on texting was in response to athletes complaining about getting such a barrage of messages from coaches that it was intruding into their personal lives. Additionally, this was at a time when “unlimited texting” mobile plans were still a pipe dream; you can imagine the costs incurred by the young athletes (meaning their parents) for all the incoming texts.

Because the NCAA is supposed to have the best interests of the student athlete in mind, it makes sense for them to embrace communications through social networks. A high school athlete can choose when to look at his or her Facebook page, so the intrusion into their personal lives should be restricted. Additionally, coaches will likely remember to appreciate the value of a personal visit and the disvalue of being an Internet spammer.

As is evident by the recent news that the FTC and FDA are cooking up federal regulations for social media, this is only the beginning. With mobile applications becoming more sophisticated by the hour and crazy “tablet” computers that look like Magna Doodles on the way, regulating bodies will feel more and more obligated to put down their two cents. And that will become tougher with each new development in the social media phenomenon. The lid on the can of worms is so loose your mother could open it.

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