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New NCAA Ed Column Explains Twitter Limits on Coaches

The NCAA recently published a new edition of its social media Educational Column. These have been published fairly regularly since about 2009 (normally every year or so) and build on each other as new services emerge and use of social media evolves, especially in recruiting.

These Ed Columns are normally done in a Q&A format and each normally has one question or another which stands out, often because it seems like a “new rule” that looks like it should need either new legislation or a staff/official interpretation. This time, those questions focus on endorsing or congratulating a high school or coach. Before getting into those questions, remember the basic rule with personal websites and social media accounts of athletic department staff members:

[A]n athletics department staff member’s personal website or social media profile [or personal page on any site (e.g., Twitter, tumblr, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn)] may include information related to the institution’s athletics program, subject to the same restrictions applicable to an institution’s athletics website.

With that in mind, let’s start with the easy questions:

Question No. 10: May an athletics department staff member post a tweet commenting on a particular facility used by prospective student-athletes (e.g. “Great ballgame at Township High School. One of the best high school baseball fields in the country!”)?
Answer: No. While it is permissible for an institutional staff member to publicly post generic information on a social networking website including locations visited (e.g., visit to a high school or town, attending a contest), comments made about a specific prospective student-athlete, coach, high school or athletics facility that is primarily used by prospective student-athletes are not permissible.

This seems pretty self-explanatory. The example is an explicit endorsement of a high school athletics program. If it is impermissible for an athletic department to feature the high school and its facilities on the official website, it is obviously not permissible for a coach to tweet something similar.

Question No. 7: May a coach send a generic good luck or congratulatory message which mentions a specific high school on social media (e.g., a tweet on Twitter or a Facebook wall post that states, “Good luck, City High School, during the 2013 soccer season!”)?
Answer: No. Such messages would constitute an endorsement of the high school.

This is not quite as obvious, but still makes sense. It is more generic than complimenting a specific aspect of the high school’s athletic program, but it is still an endorsement of the high school, and it is easy to see both how easy it would be to abuse and hard limits would be to set. The exception allowed is also fairly straight-forward:

Question No. 8: If an athletics department staff member’s son or daughter is a prospective student-athlete, is it permissible for the staff member to send a good luck or congratulatory message in which the son or daughter’s high school or team is mentioned (e.g., “Congrats to my daughter, Suzie, and the Central High volleyball team on winning the conference tournament this weekend!”)?
Answer: Yes; however, the staff member is not permitted to comment specifically on any other prospective student-athlete on the team unless the prospective student-athlete has signed a NLI or the institution’s written offer of admission and/or financial aid or the institution has received his or her financial deposit in response to its offer of admission.

This is once again self-explanatory and consistent with other exceptions granted to coaches when their children are prospects.

So far so good. This is the question which has drawn the most attention and debate:

Question No. 9: If an athletics department staff member has a pre-existing relationship with a high school coach, is it permissible for the staff member to send a good luck or congratulatory message mentioning the coach’s name (e.g., “Congrats, Coach Smith, on your 400th career victory! Proud of you, my friend.”)?
Answer: No. This would constitute an impermissible endorsement of the mentioned coach.

This seems ridiculous, but it makes sense on a few levels. First, the basic rule is not rooted in what the coach can or cannot do, it is based on what the athletic department can or cannot do. The athletic department has no preexisting relationship with the high school or club coach (club coaches are not mentioned but hopefully these rules apply the same to them), so the restriction applies the same to its coaches. It takes a stronger bond (i.e. parent-child) to trump this prohibition than just any preexisting relationship.

This is also easier for coaches to understand and compliance offices to monitor than a rule which included a general preexisting relationship. All coaches need to know is do not tweet congratulations to high school or club coaches as opposed to a more complicated rule where they can do it if they meet certain requirements. Likewise, compliance offices just need to look for any instance of tweets congratulating coaches of prospects, rather than having to dig into their coaches’ relationships when one happens.

So while Question No. 9 looks like a classic case of NCAA minutiae, it has to be analyzed in light of where it is: an educational column. Ed Columns are not supposed to be breaking new ground, they are supposed to explain the existing bylaws and interpretations. The answer is correct both in the letter and spirit of the well-established rules regarding content on a coach’s personal website or social media account. The fact that it makes the monitoring and education burden clearer is icing on the cake.

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