Dear NCAA: What About the Kids?

There’s an old saying for changing times: Adapt or die. It would be wise if the NCAA take heed.

The rapid-fire nature of social networks like Twitter and Facebook value immediacy over prudence, and the ease with which an NCAA violation could occur has become as quick as hitting Send. Just today, a recruit made an imprudent Tweet that could come back to bite both him and the school recruiting him.

The NCAA has been trying to stay abreast of the changing nature of social networking. The University of Alabama Compliance Department’s policy on social networks states that, among other things, “An athletics representative may not e-mail or post messages on the webpage or website of any prospective student-athlete.” This means the quick retweet or following of a recruit’s Twitter feed is considered a violation of NCAA bylaws.

But these policies reflect an after-the-fact mentality. What is the NCAA doing to try to head things off at the pass, outside of threatening the school with sanctions?

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Ignoring the creepiness of a crazed college sports fan seeking out and trying to influence the life decisions of an adolescent, the rule interpretation does little more than showcase the NCAA’s mantra of enforcing recruiting guidelines. With social media still growing, technology becoming more portable and accessible, schools and their compliance departments are in the impossible position of monitoring and regulating not only recruits, but their fan bases. Even worse, it puts the recruit, usually an adolescent, and his/her future in collegiate sports in jeopardy.

As anyone responsible for the actions of a group of individuals can attest, you can’t regulate people outside of your jurisdiction. In the case of college sports, you’ll never effectively muzzle a rabid or overzealous fan. Yet it seems the NCAA expects schools and top-tier athletes to know – or find – a way to deal with these folks.

For a moment though, let’s think about the kids. For most of us, it takes years to accumulate the seasoning to deal with the real world and its challenges. For the potential collegiate athlete, they can find themselves thrown to the sharks while still in high school. Forget maturity; what life experience do these athletes have to draw from to sort through the bull and make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives?

The NCAA is laying down the new reality: student athletes with collegiate sports aspirations can’t live their lives as normal teenagers do. They can’t communicate using social media without considering the repercussions. They can’t accept gifts without questioning affiliation or motives. They can’t socialize without knowing that every relationship they have, at one point or another, may be put under the NCAA microscope.

These are the same kids that often aren’t old enough to be considered by society to have the maturity to vote or purchase alcohol, yet they are expected to make life-altering decisions years ahead of their peers. Most are willing to accept these challenges in order to pursue their dream of playing sports in college. Some have the benefit of a savvy parent, family friend or coach to offer them guidance along the way. But what about those that don’t?

Bottom line, the NCAA isn’t being realistic with these rule interpretations. It’s a weak attempt to show efforts to regulate a “level playing field” in recruiting via threat of rules violations. While it has become common these days for society and the media to sit back and cry for more regulation, therein lies the question — how long can enforcement be respected when no guidance is given?

Here’s a possible solution: take it back to basics. Instead of looking for ways to penalize, the NCAA should own the problem and fix it. Look for ways to educate prospects.

“Agent” is a dirty word in the collegiate sports world, but any professional athlete will tell you, they serve a crucial role, so recognize that need. Instead of looking for new ways to drop the hammer, the NCAA could fill that void and assume a proactive role with the athlete. Offer NCAA representatives that can act like an assigned case worker, to act as liaison, advisor or counselor for the athlete during the recruiting process. Guide and educate the athlete on what’s allowed or not. Schedule and sit in on all talks between the recruiters and the prospect. Help integrate these kids into the college athletic system. Legitimate school recruiters would welcome the additional transparency of their recruiting efforts. Athletes and their families would surely appreciate the guidance.

It’s said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When it comes to social media, it’s time for the NCAA to get a new tool bag.

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