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Archive for Sunday, April 15, 2007

Technology tough on NCAA

New forms of communication alter recruiting landscape

April 15, 2007

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— When basketball scouts arrived at last summer's Nike All-America Camp, they gazed as intently at their cell phones as they did at the games. Then they started sending messages, one after another.

This is the new college recruiting world, where technology is essential.

Call a player on his home phone or send a postmarked letter, and today's teenagers might label the coach a dinosaur too unhip to consider. That's why today's recruiters increasingly rely on BlackBerrys, Sidekicks, e-mails, text messages, instant messages, even social Web sites to communicate.

Now the NCAA wants to keep pace.

"I don't know if we can ever get ahead of the technology, but as soon as it comes out, we can get involved," NCAA President Myles Brand told the Associated Press. "We're already struggling with social networks, and the technology changes very quickly. That makes it hard."

Especially hard because most NCAA regulations take at least one year to make it from proposal to rule, longer than some tech companies need to produce the next big gadget.

The 460-page Division I manual includes regulations about almost everything, from official statistics to major infractions. But today's primary recruiting tools are absent.

The NCAA management council plans to start tackling that Monday and Tuesday in Indianapolis when it debates an Ivy League proposal that would ban all text messages. Among major concerns cited by school officials and athletes are the cost, which recruits sometimes bear, and privacy.

Brand is not opposed to technological advances. In fact, he embraces them.

The NCAA, often criticized for being stodgy, now employs a blogger, and Brand spends each Monday doing a short podcast.

"We'll still have a stuffy section," Brand joked. "But we want to have communication in a manner that's appropriate to our student-athletes. We're looking aggressively at new ways of getting our messages out."

Some athletes, however, worry instant access could spiral out of control.

Division I Student-Athletic Advisory Council chairwoman Anna Chappell acknowledges she never dealt with these issues because she didn't consider herself an elite recruit. She played basketball at Arizona and is now a grad student at Oregon.

But the stories from former teammates made it clear tech tools are as prevalent in women's sports as men's, and just as much of a concern.

"A football player told us that he was getting text messages before and after games and at a lot of different times of the day," she said. "It's too expensive for a lot of student-athletes to afford and it's too intrusive on study time, practice time, even family time."

Until legislation is passed, coaches can continue operating under the old guidelines - unlimited text messages. The only rule they must follow is not contacting recruits during "dead" periods.

Instead of the either-or proposition on next week's agenda, the more likely scenario is finding middle ground. But by the time a rule is implemented, the new rules already could be moot.

"I think we all struggle with it in different ways," said Kate Hickey, chair of the management council and associate athletic director at Rutgers. "You struggle with it when you buy a computer or a cell phone, because the next day you know something better is going to come along."

Brand acknowledges it's an uphill battle. Among the next innovations that could become issues for the NCAA are video phones, video conferencing, blogs and social sites such as MySpace.

Indianapolis North Central coach Doug Mitchell understands the dilemma. With three teenagers of his own, Mitchell acknowledges today's children would rather contact friends through modern means. Coaching one of the nation's top senior basketball players, 6-foot-4 guard Eric Gordon, also has given the former Butler University recruiter a different perspective on the dangers.

Gordon, Indiana's Mr. Basketball, originally committed to Illinois before signing with his home-state Hoosiers. The switch set off nasty exchanges among bloggers.

"I know college coaches who have their own MySpace pages. We had that (blogging) happen with Eric and you saw where that went and it wasn't pretty," Mitchell said. "On the one hand, you want them to build a relationship with the coach. On the other, how do you protect a kid from becoming totally inundated from phone calls, e-mail, and everything? It's an invasion of privacy, almost."

Web sites could be more worrisome.

Aside from exposing potentially embarrassing photos or messages, Brand and Hickey already have gotten reports of social sites being used as a recruiting venue. Because of alias usernames and privacy protections, it's sometimes impossible to determine potential NCAA infractions. Boosters, for instance, are prohibited from contacting recruits.

Is there a solution?

"I think we can help," Chappell said. "The problem is how do you control things that are untrackable? Especially when there are a lot of other regulations that get broken every day that are trackable."

While Brand does not believe the voluminous rulebook needs a major overhaul, he is receptive to a new approach.

After all, keeping up with the times means keeping up with the teens - something coaches have learned.

"We may need to pass rules with higher abstracts that cover all technologies rather than specific ones," Brand said. "I think we'll reach a workable solution to protect students, but it probably won't be through unanimity."

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