Putting the ball into athletes' hands

Editor's note: This is the third story in a four-part series examining the impact of online social networks on college athletics.

Marcus Lattimore, Class of 2010, is one of the top running back recruits in the nation and has a long list of colleges he's still considering.

Fans of Lattimore's potential schools -- which include South Carolina, Clemson, Florida State and Auburn -- would love to help him make his decision. And they believe they've found an outlet for that: Lattimore's Facebook page.

The Duncan, S.C., high school star accepts just about any friend request on the social networking site, and he has collected more than 2,200 followers since starting his Facebook page in February. Not surprisingly, most of Lattimore's new "friends" have ulterior motives.

"Every time I get on [Facebook], no matter what time I get on there, somebody is saying, 'Come be a Tiger,' 'Come be a Gamecock,' 'Come be a Nittany Lion' or something," he said. "They've written on my wall or sent me a message. I read all of them and, I mean, it's just crazy."

Coaches, colleges and conferences have used social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to break the fourth wall with their desired audience, whether that means devoted fans or potential recruits. The same technology provides high school stars a new way to interact and publish their own messages.

In the past, virtually all news about top prospects came from recruiting Web sites or traditional media reports. But players such as Devin Gardner can now cut out the middleman.

Gardner, a highly touted quarterback in the Class of 2010 who has committed to Michigan, maintains an active Facebook page that includes his highlight videos and frequent status updates. Like Lattimore, Gardner routinely accepts friend requests from fans.

Every time I get on [Facebook], no matter what time I get on there, somebody is saying, 'Come be a Tiger,' 'Come be a Gamecock,' 'Come be a Nittany Lion' or something. They've written on my wall or sent me a message. I read all of them and, I mean, it's just crazy.

--Running back prospect Marcus Lattimore

"I thought my friends would like to see my highlight videos, and now everybody gets a chance to see them," he said. "A lot of people like to question my ability, so it's right there for them to see. If you do things right, you can really use Facebook [to your advantage]."

Both Lattimore and Gardner say they've used Facebook to talk with coaches. They've also connected with other recruits around the country, sharing notes about different colleges and talking about their futures. Although Lattimore plans to hold a traditional news conference when he ultimately announces his college choice, he's leaning toward telling everyone his final list of five schools through his Facebook status update.

With recruits talking about everything from their recent visits to their general likes and dislikes on these sites, college coaches know they had better refresh those pages often.

"It's our responsibility to make that sure that happens," Utah recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley said. "If a kid doesn't check his e-mail but is really into Facebook, then it's important that we learn about that. They may lie and say they don't, but I believe the majority of college football coaches look at that stuff."

Some prospects hope the increased attention will help them get noticed. Recruits' families and their high school coaches have long used the Internet to promote kids by subscribing to recruiting services or posting YouTube videos. Now it's possible for a player to send a direct message to Pete Carroll's Twitter account and tell the USC coach, "Hey, check out the highlight videos on my Facebook profile."

"I don't think coaches are saying, 'I need a quarterback, let me go MySpace it,'" said Anthony Neyer, a borderline Division I quarterback prospect from Palm Desert, Calif. "But if they've got somebody they're interested in, there's no doubt they're checking that. I definitely think that will be a more of a predominant thing in the future."

Patrick Richard's 1-year-old Web site, highschoolrecruitment.com, is designed to raise the profile of fringe prospects. The service has a Twitter page that announces when a new player has signed up. Richard thinks high school athletes will do much more self-promotion in the years to come.

"Kids are very Internet-savvy, even in grade school," Richard said. "They used to rely on their parents before, but now most kids have their own computers and just do it themselves. That will be the primary way to get the word out. Recruiting is crazy competitive, and there are a lot of ways to promote yourself."

Few people in the amateur football world have embraced that concept more than the Forcier family.

Mike Forcier started a Web site, QBForce.com, to keep family and friends informed about his three quarterbacking sons and to promote San Diego high school football. Jason Forcier played at Michigan and Stanford; Chris was a redshirt sophomore at UCLA last season; and Tate is a freshman at Michigan.

Interest in the site exceeded Mike Forcier's wildest dreams, topping out at more than 700,000 hits in one recent month. When Chris transferred from UCLA to Furman this summer, the family issued its own detailed news release listing all the reasons. The boys' mom, Suzanne Forcier, recently began a Twitter page to keep people even more informed of the family's day-to-day dealings.

Some have criticized the Forciers for being overbearing and self-serving. But Mike Forcier says he thinks every player should document his experience.

"The reports that come out of individual schools are slanted, at best," he said. "They're reported in a light that makes the school and the program look good, and the kids are dispensable. I would suggest kids who want to promote themselves take it into their own hands."

All this new hyperconnectivity can have its drawbacks.

Kentucky self-reported a secondary violation a couple of years ago after some of its basketball fans went overboard on then-recruit Patrick Patterson's MySpace page. (Patterson, of course, still ended up signing with the Wildcats.) Mega-recruit Joe McKnight has said that he chose to play football at USC in part because LSU fans turned him off with their obsessive cyberstalking.

Lattimore's Facebook page once got infected with a virus, and it sent a message to a Clemson assistant coach. When the coach opened the message, it contained a link to a porn site. Lattimore had to call the coach to explain what happened.

For some, though, a little obscenity is a small price to pay for more ownership.

"I like it," Gardner said. "It lets me put my athletic life, my friends and everything all together on one site."

Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.