Clifton Garrett is one of the nation's top prospects in the 2014 recruiting class. He's also an enthusiastic and savvy Twitter user, having Tweeted more than 16,000 times.
In that way, he's a typical Generation Y college football recruit.
When today's college football coaches and administrators were growing up, teenagers had to keep journals to record the daily happenings in their lives. Millennial recruits are now doing the same, only in 140-character bursts on their very public Twitter and Facebook accounts.
It’s a whole new world.
“Social media, on some levels, has turned into their diary,” said Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media, which specializes in training student-athletes in such skills. “It is their place to go vent, without realizing just how public that forum is.”
Garrett, who is rated as a 5-star linebacker by 247 Sports and is considering schools such as LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Florida, enjoys interacting with fans and developing relationships with fellow recruits on Twitter. He says posting messages such as “Rocky Top” to Tennessee fans is bound to get bushels of retweets to his Twitter account (@CG340) and earn him more new followers.
“People definitely pay attention to stuff like that, but I just love the whole process,” Garrett said.
Over the last few years, social media has changed the way people communicate and has placed a heavy burden on college football recruits, who must learn how to handle their celebrity statuses in appropriate ways on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
After his coach called a team meeting to address social media with his players, the need to be responsible online has stayed in the forefront of Garrett’s mind.
“It’s not a good look if you are on there firing off curse words and all of that stuff,” he said. In fact, Garrett recalls an instance when a college coach told him, “Oh, I saw you went to the movies this weekend.” Garrett said that reminded him that coaches probably read everything he posts.
The players, however, aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to interact on Twitter and Facebook. Coaches' and administrators’ social media savvy spans the spectrum from expert to your grandpa trying to use the DVR. Some college coaches actively use it as a recruiting tool. Others, such as Nick Saban, can’t even send a text—much less a tweet.
Twitter exceeded 500 million users in February of 2012 and is growing at a fast enough rate to top one billion users by 2014, according to Lauren Dugan of MediaBistro.com. As Jon Solomon of AL.com points out, the social media revolution even helped inspire changes to the NCAA’s recruiting rules.
Social media most certainly is not going away. So the question players and coaches should be asking themselves is, “How can I make social media work for me instead of against me.’’
This offseason has already produced many other headlines stemming from controversial posts on student-athletes’ social media accounts. Those front-page narratives feed into the assumption that social media can only mean trouble for young athletes. That, however, is not always the case.
So how can all the actors in the recruiting process—from coaches and administrators to the players and their parents—consistently find the bright side of social media?
The Twitter Effect
All parties involved are still figuring out the impact of social media in the recruiting process.
Many coaches and parents simply don’t understand the mechanics of it, while players lack the maturity to understand its power.
Also, as Jerry Hinnen of CBS Sports points out, coaches like Bob Stoops have acknowledged that fans are now a bigger part of the recruiting process thanks to social media. Fans love the access to the players, but some abuse that opportunity by lashing out at recruits who rebuff their favorite program for another.
Hinnen also notes that newer sites such as Ask.fm are becoming increasingly popular among recruits and fans who bombard them with questions anonymously.
Social media has also helped coaches to more efficiently open a dialogue with recruiting targets.
Chad Jamison, the former director of high school relations at N.C. State, explains how it has made recruits more easily accessible to coaches. “In the beginning, even when I was a recruiting intern in 2000, we did everything through the high school coach,” said Jamison, who works as a scout for a recruiting service called National Preps. Social media, he said, “starts the process much quicker.”
College coaches can simply log onto Twitter and Facebook and engage in a conversation with a recruit instantly without leaving their desk or the film room. Once that connection is built, it makes the recruiting process an around-the-clock task for coaches and recruits.
When a coach identifies a top target, there seems to be no limit to what he will do to keep the lines of communications open. For example, according to Michael Carvell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Saban spent 90 minutes chatting on Skype with a recruit who had committed to another school.
NCAA rules place fewer restrictions on social media in comparison with phone calls or text messages, according to ESPN’s Jake Trotter. That is part of the reason why coaches are making it a more integral part of their recruiting strategies.
However, coaches aren’t spending all day online, posting about the happenings in their daily lives like teenagers do.
DeShazo points out that most of their understanding of social media comes strictly from their interactions with recruits. That hinders their ability to help their players avoid the pitfalls of communicating on these platforms.
The main challenge for athletes on social media seems to be understanding their role in the medium.
While a normal 17-year-old can use social media in a comfortable bubble among friends and peers, top-tier recruits are the object of discussion among people they have never met.
“What’s different about these high-profile athletes is that they are the discussion on Twitter,” said Jimmy Sanderson, an associate professor in the department of communication studies at Clemson. “If I’m Robert Nkemdiche or someone of that nature, I’m literally the discussion.”
Considering the celebrity attached to a 5-star recruit such as Nkemdiche, it’s not surprising that a highly coveted prospect’s newfound fame comes with a bit of a culture shock.
Expecting student-athletes to handle those types of situations with maturity—usually without any type of training—is probably unrealistic.
Nkemdiche, who was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the class of 2013, endured some trying moments on Twitter, according to Josh Ward of MrSEC.com. After an early commitment to Clemson, he backed off that pledge and eventually signed with Ole Miss.
Nkemdiche’s flip-flop was not a rarity.
He was one of 10 5-star prospects in the 2013 class that did not sign with the school to which they originally committed. However, his social media celebrity and the public nature of the medium made his decision-making process a national news story for months and led to more than a few inappropriate messages on Twitter.
Daniel Hour, who is the manager of New Media and Recruiting Services at the University of Washington, notes fan sentiment toward a player can change instantly on social media.
“It’s discouraging to see the way they (student-athletes) are talked to or about on social media when they play poorly or decide on a school some fans may not approve of,” Hour said. “It’s not so much the criticism, but the name-calling and misguided anger and hatred directed at these kids. I can’t even imagine how the players feel about it, but it must not be fun for them at all. I mean, they’re kids.”
The challenges that social media presents put coaches and players in opposite roles. Coaches are experienced in dealing with pressure caused by outside influences, but they are unfamiliar with the communication platform. Players are hip to social media, but they are unaware of how to react when increased attention arrives.
With both parties in unfamiliar territory, and the public essentially having a front-row seat to witness every misstep, social media has become the most dangerous part of the recruiting process.
Epic Social Media Fails and Consequences
“They think that it’s just their 500 or 1,000 friends following them. Some recruits have many more followers than that, but they fall victim to a comfort zone of thinking it’s just them and their friends.”—Kevin DeShazo
Whether or not student-athletes realize it, the idea of being a regular teenager on social media disappears once their profile is created on Rivals, 247 Sports, ESPN or any other recruiting service.
Sree Sreenivasan, the current Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University and renowned social media expert says the biggest obstacle for rising recruits is comprehending the importance that each post holds.
“This is a serious business,” Sreenivasan said. “It can help you. It can hurt you. If anything you say can be taken out of context and hurt you, it will. So you have to be so careful. You have to understand, especially as an athlete, if you do have hopes of a professional career, that it could all be jeopardized in a single tweet, Facebook post or posting a photo on Instagram.”
Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is far from the only one to raise eyebrows with questionable tweets.
In fact, his alleged transgressions look tame in comparison to Florida State corner Tyler Hunter tweeting about killing cops, or Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones posting about why he feels athletes shouldn't have to attend class (via ESPN).
Perhaps the most egregious example of Twitter gone wrong comes from former 4-star corner Yuri Wright. He was a star in the class of 2012 who had offers from programs such as Michigan, Notre Dame, USC and Alabama. He was a verbal commitment to the Wolverines before a series of profane tweets went viral.
“Wright was an elite prospect with big offers,” DeShazo said. “His dream was to go to Michigan. He had a private account, but someone took screenshots of horribly inappropriate tweets. Michigan pulled his scholarship. No schools would verify this, but they all pulled his offer after what this young man put online.”
Wright would eventually sign to play at Colorado.
In a story written by ESPN’s Jake Trotter, Wright reflected upon the incident that put his future in doubt.
Warning: The following Tweets are NSFW.
"Hopefully, other people will learn from what happened to me and make smarter choices," Wright said. "My days with social media are over, I promise. No more Twitter. No more Facebook. I have a phone, and if I want to talk to someone now, I'm just calling or texting them."
What makes Wright’s tale so troubling is that, while his comments were, no doubt, inappropriate and offensive, it was not out of the ordinary for a young man his age.
Players, similar to peers in their age group, often post things that are harmless in their minds—examples such as rap lyrics or inside jokes among friends—but that set off red flags in the minds of college coaches and media members scouring a potential recruit’s timeline.
“No matter what I’ve seen or read about regular kids not going to school who play sports, they still get in trouble with what they are posting,” said Chris Yandle, who is the Director of Communications at the University of Miami (Fla.). “Now schools are talking about social media being part of the vetting process. It’s like an extra level of interviewing to see what these kids are posting about.”
So the question becomes: How can future recruits learn about how to properly use social media?
Educating student-athletes and coaches about social media and the way it can be used as a positive tool is the perfect starting point.
How to Do It Right On Twitter
“Live your life, don’t tweet your life.”—Chris Yandle
College coaches aren’t looking for 16- and 17-year-olds to be public relations experts. Instead, they expect them to understand how to carry themselves.
They expect a potential representative of their university to make good decisions and display character, an expectation that carries over to each individual’s online presence.
Garrett has a simple test that helps him measure whether to post a message. In most cases, that means simply avoiding talking about controversial things such as sex, drugs, alcohol, etc., or posting profanity-laden messages.
“Just be smart about what you are doing, and if you start to second-guess it, then it’s probably a good idea to keep that message to yourself,” Garrett said.
Garrett’s mature outlook on social media is one that could pay off as his career progresses.
As Sanderson notes, the increased visibility created by an active presence on social media can be beneficial to young athletes and their brand if they approach it with a positive mindset.
He said that social media gives them a chance to connect with influential people who can help them to reach their goals. Rising athletes can also demonstrate leadership skills by encouraging people to support their team and promoting their school’s other athletics.
Most aspiring high school football players dream of a long and potentially lucrative career in the NFL. However, as Sreenivasan suggests, few seem to realize, as was the case with Wright, the damage they can do to their long-term image and their potential brand if they have poor social media habits.
The most important thing that recruits have going for them is the opportunity to carefully craft a brand-worthy image with every post.
“Anyone that was being recruited at N.C. State, I would tell their parents all the time, the main thing you can do is to make sure that you control the recruiting process,’’ Jamison said. “Don’t let the media or the colleges, etc., control it.”
Administrators promoting a positive approach to social media would likely resonate more with student-athletes if they saw more coaches practicing what they preach like Miami’s Al Golden (@GoldenAl).
Earlier this year, Golden created a Twitter hashtag called “#ThankUMonday,” where he would begin the week by tweeting "thank you" messages to people who helped him throughout his life.
The messages ranged from thanking family and mentors, to showing gratitude to people associated with the university who have touched him a positive way.
According to Yandle, the gesture had a trickle-down effect on the Hurricanes’ players.
“He [Coach Golden] started doing it then, and the players followed suit like clockwork, and that just was a great tool for our kids and our program,” Yandle said. “Normally, we don’t promote our student-athletes Twitter accounts on our main channels, but in instances like that when our kids are showing gratitude to others in their life, we want to share that.”
Golden’s ability to lead by example is an important lesson for parents and coaches involved in the lives of younger student-athletes.
That his players voluntarily picked up where he left off is a strong signal about the role that coaches can play in guiding the social media education process.
Social Media Education
“You have to have guidelines and policies, but more importantly, you have to teach.” —Sree Sreenivasan
When should the education process begin, and what role should parents and coaches play in helping young student-athletes develop sound social media habits?
To put things in perspective, Facebook and Instagram each have an age limit requiring users to be at least 13 years old, while Twitter has no such age restrictions.
Trends such as coaches offering scholarships to players yet to enter high school suggests the answer to this question: the earlier the better.
As Hour points out, most teenagers and young adults are given the chance to learn from their mistakes through trial and error. However, a mistake on social media for a rising recruit could result in the loss of scholarship offers.
The stakes may be too high to wait on education.
It’s a slippery slope for parents who are trying to help educate young athletes about social media. In some cases, the timing could depend more on the willingness of the child to be receptive to the message.
“I think it’s appropriate to speak to potential recruits at any age, but it really is a case-by-case basis because the real question is when will a specific recruit be ready to listen?” Hour said. “You can always talk, but if they’re not ready to listen, then there’s really no point except to cover yourself and say, ‘at least I gave them the talk.’”
Equally important is how the message is delivered, as DeShazo notes.
“They didn’t become good at their sport by learning what not to do,” DeShazo said. “They had a coach step in and say, ‘this is how you shoot, this is how you play defense, if you’re a QB, this is how you take a 3- or 5-step drop, this is how you throw and catch.’ They were shown the proper mechanics and form, and they repeated those things and that’s how they improved. It’s the same thing with social media.”
Hour, who has become one of the leading voices in college administration trumpeting the importance of educating athletes on social media, shared some of the creative ways he and his team go about discussing social media with Huskies student-athletes.
- UW Coaches on Social Media: It took a couple of years to get most of our coaches to buy into social media, but their presence in the Twitterverse has helped tremendously. Our student-athletes are more conscious of what they’re saying when they know their coaches are listening. Like I said, they do need to be reminded from time to time, but our coaches have no problem with that!
- Freshman Orientation: New UW Student-Athletes go through about eight meetings in this one day. Welcome to college, right? There is no way they are remembering everything that’s being said on this day, so instead of a presentation on policy, we beef up their Facebook privacy settings. We go step-by-step and make sure everyone is following along. Super simple point and click type stuff that they benefit from. It’s also kind of fun to see their reaction to, “OK, now log-in to Facebook and have your phones out.”
- One-on-One With Teams: Then I set up a time with each coach to meet with their players to go through the UW social media policy and what I call “The Peer Failure Packet.” It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it keeps them much more entertained and involved in the presentation than a policy lecturing would be. I am constantly reminding myself that I’m talking to 18-22-year-olds, so you have to keep it quick and engaging.
- Location-Based Dangers: This is one we go over primarily with our female teams because we've actually had problems with some fans going overboard and finding out where players live and when they’re home alone or where they’re having dinner based on tweets or instagrams.
- #FeaturedAthletes: This program was created as a reward for the student-athletes that we find do a good job on social media representing themselves, their program and the institution as a whole. These athletes get a custom-made twitter icon, custom-made twitter background, are followed by the @UWAthletics account, and are retweeted by the @UWAthletics account.
- Third-Party Media Consultants: Our communications department works to set our teams up with media professionals Brian Curtis (Paradigm Sports Media) and Kim Staninger (Epio Solutions) to respectively, do standard media training and social media training.
The Future of Social Media and College Football
“Social media isn't creating human behavior, I think it is just revealing it.”—Chris Yandle
While controversies involving current players and recruits are unlikely to fade completely, the problem has become visible enough for all parties involved to start educating themselves on the issue.
Young recruits are quickly learning about the dangers of social media as their peers and parents are starting to understand some of the potential social media pitfalls that come with the recruiting process, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
High school and college coaches are adopting social media training as an integral part of their programs. On an organizational level, firms such as DeShazo’s Fieldhouse Media are expanding their reach to more college and high school programs.
In the digital age, when every post is instantly public record, student-athletes are becoming the most visible representatives of their respective universities. With that comes a responsibility to handle the notoriety and attention—good or bad—that comes with each post online.
In a sea of negativity that has swallowed some of his peers, Garrett maintains that he has enjoyed being on social media throughout the recruiting process. He said that his experiences with it have helped him observe a simple yet effective strategy with his online profiles.
“I use Twitter to promote myself and just for posting good things about stuff like my workouts, and talking to my friends,” Garrett said. “But I make sure that is not in a negative way. I always try to stay positive on Twitter.”
*Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.