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Caring: Creepier Than Ever, Ohio State Edition

As our friends at BHGP love to say regarding recruiting, "caring is creepy." This week, it got really creepy for Ohio State.

A strange thing happened in the Ohio State Twitterverse a few days ago, and it's been dutifully preserved by Luke Zimmermann over at SB Nation's newest Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land (yes, thankfully, Along The Olentangy is no more). Charles Eric Waugh, an Ohio State fan in his early 30's under the Twitter name @BdubsTriviaGuru, was tweeting Mohammed Ali quotes at practically every Ohio State football player or recruit imaginable:

Over the course of 46 minutes, this particular individual at tweeted 129 current, former, and prospective student athletes with ties to The Ohio State University. Having seen the account cited by athletes previously, the twitter account affiliated with this site made an observation about the behavior, somewhat in jest, but also critical of the sort of such bizarre practice, even in the ever progressing in absurdity meat market like environment that comprises college athletic recruiting today:

Because there's nothing weird at all about spending time tweeting motivational quotes at 16-22 year olds:

— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) April 30, 2012

Waugh had attended Ohio State's spring game a week or two earlier, and took pictures with a number of current Buckeye players. He hung out with two current players at a local Chipotle. Even more creepy, he was posing with Buckeye recruits, including Alex Anzalone.

Just an overzealous fan? In this case, the overzealous fan is apparently a registered sex offender.

In 2007, then 27 year old Charles Eric Waugh, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to five counts of possession of matter portraying sexual performances by minors. The FBI office in Oklahoma City had tracked Waugh downloading images of boys younger than 16 engaged in sexual acts and coordinated with the bureau's Louisville office to pursue charges against Waugh. As part of the guilty plea (and due to his lack of a record), Waugh avoided jail time, was placed on probation, made to register as a sex offender for the next 20 years, and forced to complete a two year rehabilitation program that incarcerated offenders must undergo before release. Per the terms of his probation, he also had to comply with various regulations for sex offenders.

Those "various regulations" include interacting electronically with individuals under 18 years of age, and Waugh is likely to find himself in deep trouble for his actions. To their credit, and even before they knew that Waugh had a record, Ohio State fans flooded the tOSU compliance office with tips. Yesterday, Ohio State sent an email and text alert to its athletes on how to block Waugh, and people like him.

So, crisis seemingly averted in Buckeye Land, but Twitter and Facebook remain an enormous problem for the NCAA and your friendly, local compliance department. Most universities' compliance departments are barely equipped to handle big scandals involving major violations. When it comes to social network sites, it's practically a banana republic for the NCAA and its member institutions. Granted, the instances of registered sex offenders trying to nudge their way into athletics' inner circle are rare, but the concerns about overzealous fans creating problems for athletic departments remain thoroughly valid.

Boiled down to its essence, the clearest guidance on the topic is that "boosters" (termed as "representatives of the institution's athletic interests" by the NCAA -- we'll call them "boosters") can't provide benefits to prospective or current athletes or otherwise encourage them to come to a particular institution.

The former provision is obvious enough -- it's what dastardly boosters and colleges have been getting busted for since the dawn of time. It's under that latter provision where the NCAA and it's institutions are practically powerless in the digital age. The term "booster" casts a wide net, and includes former varsity athletes, current or former season ticket holders, anyone who has made a financial contribution to the athletic department or booster organization (such as the Nittany Lion Club), and more.

So if you're a season ticket holder and you tweet "COME TO PENN STAAAAAAATE!" to a recruit, that's a NCAA violation. The NCAA isn't going to slap PSU with the death penalty, mind you. Besides, given all that is happening in college athletics right now, do you think the NCAA has time to sift through the tens of thousands of tweets directed at recruits on a daily basis? If one of our Black Shoe Diaries readers created a Twitter account named @OSURedneckRocker tomorrow, filled the account bio with Jim Tressel tributes, and began tweeting NCAA violations at Buckeye recruits, could the NCAA determine that it's a fake account? The NCAA doesn't have subpoena power and couldn't prove anything in the Cam Newton case. You think they're going to waste time and money verifying thousands of Twitter accounts that, when all is really said and done, aren't providing a particular school with a real recruiting advantage?

Still, it's all certainly enough to annoy Penn State's compliance department and coaching staff. By constantly seeking more followers (to the point of competition with their fellow recruits and athletes) the young men themselves aren't making it any easier for their coaches and administrators. What can you, the unknowing booster, do to avoid contributing to this creepy mess? Well, don't tweet at high school and college kids, how about that?

If that's not enough, here's a little help. We did our research on the topic months ago. After some searching, I found the following information on a Michigan Hockey site, which contained information and tips directly from Michigan's chief of compliance, Elizabeth Heinrich.

(The official NCAA site, by the way? Glaringly deficient and unhelpful on this topic, and yes, we're all shocked. And if anybody from Penn State's athletic department wants to correct or amend the information below, please contact us.)

Her advice, after the break:

Recruiting Contact through Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, etc…)

The following information is directly from Elizabeth Heinrich:

  • Most prospective student-athletes use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate with both their family and friends and the general public. We are often asked, when it comes to recruiting, what kind of interaction is permitted with a prospective student-athlete on these sites? The rules apply differently based on which of three categories you fall into: coaches, media or fans/boosters.
  • Coaches are permitted to use social media sites on a limited basis to communicate with recruits. Since coaches are permitted to send recruiting correspondence to recruits during their junior and senior years of high school, there are certain functions on social media sites that are similar to email correspondence, such as the direct message feature on Twitter and the Inbox feature on Facebook. The key is that these are person-to-person communications. Coaches may not post communications with a prospect in a public forum, because the coaches may not publicize who they are recruiting. So posting on a wall or @replying to a Twitter message from a prospect is not permitted since that can be viewed by anyone viewing the prospect’s page.
  • Media likewise often contact recruits through social media sites. Provided they are contacting an individual for media purposes, NCAA rules do not regulate the manner in which they contact the prospect – by direct message or public tweet.
  • Boosters are subject to some limitations on their contact with prospective student-athletes. One component of NCAA rules is that 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. So it would be a violation of NCAA rules for a booster to contact a prospective student-athlete by Twitter or Facebook to encourage them to attend Michigan. Likewise, it would be impermissible for a booster to set up a fan page in order to encourage a specific prospect to attend Michigan, such as a page entitled "Michigan Fans Love Johnny Prospect." Because the institution is held responsible for the conduct of its boosters, doing so would require the University of Michigan to self-report a violation of NCAA rules.
  • It is not, however, impermissible for booster to follow a prospective student-athlete on Facebook or Twitter, as long as they are not reaching out to that recruit to in any way encourage them to attend Michigan. Boosters may not contact a prospect even if a prospective student-athlete invites people to contact him or her to advise them about what school to choose.
  • Also, keep in mind that someone can be both a member of the media and a booster, depending on the context. As a member of the media, you would expect that someone would be seeking information, not pushing a particular agenda. So if a media member/booster contacted a prospect to say "I hear you are leaning towards Michigan, would you care to comment" that would be an appropriate contact by a member of the media. If that same individual sent a message saying, "I hear you are leaning towards Michigan, I think you would look great in Maize and Blue. Is it true?" that would be impermissible contact by a booster because they are encouraging the prospect to attend Michigan. It all depends on the context.

In many ways, it's an honor system considering the NCAA's complete inability to regulate in this area. It's not like Twitter requires a birth certificate and photo ID to create an account, as if the potential for Twitter shenanigans was not already immense. In fact, toward the end of Armani Reeves' recruitment this winter, I noted someone with a "PSU" reference in his Twitter handle was tweeting some rather awful, racially charged things at Reeves. Not that any fanbase is incapable of such things, but it appeared to be a rather transparently fake account. Still, Reeves took it seriously at the time.

Further, what's the incentive for fans (or anyone else) to not act badly here? The risk to the institution is minimal -- even if the NCAA decided to start dinging its member institutions for these violations, they're very, very minor violations in the grand scheme of things and unlikely to result in any actual punishment. In fact, given the lack of concrete guidance in this area, even the NCAA must realize that these are violations that the institutions themselves are not only completely isolated from and practically powerless to stop.

The most meaningful step the institutions could take would be to revoke the season ticket privileges of individuals they find to have committed violations, but even that is a process that is more trouble and effort than it's likely worth.

The risk to the actual fans/boosters who are tweeting at recruits and telling them to choose a certain school? Practically nil. There's no incentive to stop. At all. Hell, these people think they're helping. And if you weigh most recruits' love for gushing social media attention against the NCAA's impotence on the issue, maybe the fans are helping. That's the scary part, if you make your salary in a big-time athletic department.

So, what's the solution here? It's the NCAA, dummy. Has there ever been a good solution to a nuanced problem?