Outside the Lines: Text Appeal

Hamstrung by his recruiting indiscretions at Oklahoma, newly appointed Indiana basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson is left searching for a way to contact recruits after his penalty for recruiting violations was handed down on Thursday.

Upon discovering that Sampson and his Oklahoma staff violated NCAA rules by placing 577 impermissible phone calls to recruits, the NCAA banned Sampson from phoning recruits and visiting them off campus until May 2007. The NCAA determined Sampson showed a "complete disregard" for the strict regulations the NCAA has established regarding the contact of recruits. But the NCAA neglected to ban Sampson from text messaging recruits, leaving a loophole so wide that Sampson does not have to look much farther than the latest technology for a way to build his new program and keep in constant contact with his prospects.

While the NCAA's investigation into Sampson's illegal recruiting practices was taking place, all eyes were on George Mason as it accomplished the impossible. The nation was captivated as the Patriots made tournament history, defeating UConn and becoming the first mid-major school to head to the Final Four in more than 20 years. For George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga and his staff, the Cinderella team's success has translated into a recruiting tool, providing them with the national media attention necessary for recruiting high-profile student-athletes.

"I've been dying for a time to text message a kid to tell him that we just beat UConn and we're going to the Final Four," George Mason assistant coach Chris Caputo said in March, his Blackberry resting nearby.

For thousands of college coaches across the country, text messaging has become a routine part of the recruiting process, providing instant access to prospects with just a few short lines. As he quickly shoots off a text message, his thumbs finding the keys easily out of routine, Caputo said he's already received seven messages from potential recruits, and in a typical day he'll text message roughly 10 prospects.

"It's a very easy and efficient way of getting in touch with that student-athlete very quickly," Caputo said.

Relaxing at his desk in his office adjacent to Caputo's, Larranaga quickly sends a text message to a prospective recruit. "Now, every high school prospect you talk to has a cell phone with him 100 percent of the time. I think they sleep with it in their ear!" a bemused Larranaga said. "It seems that young kids have an easier time not having to speak to you, but can text message you short sentences to communicate."

Always Accessible
While text messaging recruits is a painless process for coaches, some feel the overwhelming number of text messages recruits are receiving is bordering on intrusive. Kosta Koufos, a 7-foot-1 center, ranked as one of the top-10 basketball recruits in his class, has been on the receiving end of plenty of text messages. He said he gets about 20 every day.

"During school I get them all the time, so I gotta keep my phone on vibrate," Koufos chuckles. "I had a couple incidents where it went off and I got a little bit in trouble."

On a bench outside a recent AAU tournament in Akron, Ohio, Koufos reads a text message from Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, which compares Koufos to NBA star Dirk Nowitzki: "'How good is Dirk? He looks like he's playing in Ohio State's system.'" Koufos adds, "That's pretty nice to have."

Arrelious Benn, ranked as a top wide receiver in his age group, checked his cell phone after a recent weight training and sprint workout and noticed he had five text messages waiting for him, all from college coaches. He quickly noted that number is a little lower than normal.

It is obvious that he is one of the most sought after football prospects in the nation, when later that day he heaved a garbage bag full of letters onto the kitchen table, unloaded the letters from the bag, and let them overflow onto the table and spill onto the floor. A junior at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., the 6-2 wide receiver said he also receives dozens of text messages each day.

Sitting on his bed, sporting a backwards cap and T-shirt, Benn read off a list of schools that text messaged him just that day, from his T-mobile Sidekick. "Miami, Maryland, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois," Benn said. "That's about it for now, but I'm pretty sure I'll get more later on." In one message, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer wrote: "What's up playmaker? Do I have a chance to get you wearing orange and white?" In another, the receivers coach at Miami assured Benn the offer letter would arrive in a few days. As a huge smile spreads across his face, Benn said if his mom had not signed up for unlimited text messaging his cell phone bill would be a huge problem.

Invasion of Privacy
The NCAA now finds itself questioning the original ruling on text messaging, wondering if the regulations that were created to protect recruits, are in fact invading their privacy.

"The concern is about the intrusiveness to the prospect," ACC associate commissioner Shane Lyons said. "You know, the timing. Some of these e-mails, or text messages, are being sent during academic class time, during the school day hours."

Lyons chairs the NCAA's Recruiting Committee on Academics, Eligibility, and Compliance, a group charged with reviewing recruiting regulations.

But the NCAA may have bigger concerns than the excessive number of text messages some prospects are receiving on a daily basis. Under NCAA rules, college coaches cannot initiate contact of any kind with high school freshmen and sophomores, and are extremely limited in the amount of times they can phone high school players before their senior season. But under the current regulations, text messaging is not considered a phone call.

Bottom line: Coaches can text message juniors like Kosta Koufos and Arrelious Benn as many times as they want.

"If it's electronic transmission that is not voice exchanged then its treated as general correspondence, like a letter you receive in the mail," Lyons said.

In recent weeks, ESPN contacted several highly recruited high school athletes who receive text messages, as well as their coaches and their parents. They describe an atmosphere where college coaches frequently text message recruits during their freshman and sophomore years. That has the attention of those who enforce the NCAA's rules, because the same rules that allow text messages to high school juniors and seniors, prohibit text messaging to freshmen and sophomores.

Benn specifically told us he received text messages on several occasions from Penn State, Virginia, and Maryland as a sophomore. While Virginia and Penn State denied any improper activity regarding Benn's recruitment, a Maryland associate athletic director told us she's "spoken with the coaches involved with the recruitment of this young man. Each indicated they had not contacted Arrelious Benn at an inappropriate time." Shortly after ESPN asked the schools about potential violations related to text messaging, Benn contacted us and changed his story saying he was never text messaged by those schools as a sophomore.

Family Matters
Ohio basketball standout Delvon Roe, a 6-7 sophomore forward who plays on the same AAU team as Kosta Koufos, said the text messages from college coaches started his freshman year in high school. Roe appeared taken aback when he recounted that he received a text message from Michigan on his second day of his freshman year: "Is this a joke or something?"

Delvon Blanton, who is both Roe's father and the coach of his son's AAU team, said he is uncomfortable with college coaches sending text messages to his son at such a young age.

"I don't like that. Because you can be telling my son something that I don't want him to hear," Blanton said. "Kids are vulnerable to a lot of things they hear or read. I don't want you to tell him what you can give him or what he can take or what you can, you know, offer him. I want him to be able to come and talk to us as a family."

When the University of Michigan was contacted about what Roe told ESPN, the school admitted he had been sent a text message too early and started an internal investigation. "This appears to be a secondary violation," Michigan said in a prepared statement. "We are still reviewing the matter before a final report is sent to the NCAA."

"They have the obligation to report that to the enforcement staff of the NCAA and to be handled by that appropriate group to see what type of penalties would be placed on that institution and or coach," Lyons said.

But text messaging freshmen and sophomore prospects is not the only recruiting violation that has become a common practice. At a recent Charlottesville, Va., AAU tournament, Middletown (Del.) sophomore Jarrett Mann told us recruiters from several schools, specifically the University of Delaware and Georgetown University, text message him and his family.

"Georgetown University texts my mom, I want to say every day, every single day," Mann said. I don't see a problem with that because I have high interest in the school."

But even text messaging the parent of a sophomore is against NCAA rules. Mann's mother later told us in a phone call that Georgetown text messages her once or twice a week, not every day. Neither Georgetown nor Delaware would respond to our requests for interviews about Mann's recruitment.

While recruiting violations seem to be prevalent, Lyons said that college coaches should without question know the rules and regulations about text messaging, as coaches must take a test every year to stay informed about the latest recruiting rules. It's an open book test, so coaches have the answers, and the most recent versions include specific questions relating to the time periods of when it's acceptable to text message a recruit.

'Give me a call'
ESPN also found evidence of coaches using text messages as a loophole to get around the restrictions on calling recruits. Coaches are essentially using text messages to lure recruits into calling them. While coaches are extremely limited in the amount of times they can call high school recruits, there's no limit to the number of times high school recruits can phone college coaches. Koufos said that about 50 percent of the text messages he receives include the words "Give me a call."

"Some coaches might say 'call me now' or 'call me when you have a chance,'" Benn said. "I'll call them back and it would spark a conversation."

"Now that we have found that the kid can call us, the prospect can call us, we'll text message him and he'll call us and that doesn't count," Larranaga said. "So every time a rule is made some bright young assistant finds a way around it.

"I'm kind of surprised we don't already have restrictions because we have limits on almost every aspect of recruiting and my guess is one day we will."

It's ironic that by allowing text messaging, the NCAA thought it had found a way to limit the amount of intrusive contact coaches have with recruits. Lyons said the NCAA must find a delicate balance between limiting intrusive contact and allowing coaches to pursue their top recruits.

"What is too much? What's not enough?" Lyons said. "We want to give our coaches the opportunity to recruit the right type of athlete for their program, for that institution, allow them to get to know the individual, not only as an athlete but as a person. But there's a balance there as well."

Now the watchdog of college athletics is considering limiting text messaging, or eliminating it entirely from the recruiting process. An NCAA subcommittee is scheduled to meet June 13-14 in Indianapolis where it will review feedback on the topic from conferences and coaches associations. By the end of the meeting members will know if the subcommittee will sponsor legislation lobbying to limit text messaging for next year's legislative cycle. Proposed legislation must be submitted by July 15, and schools and conferences will then vote on the legislation. The earliest any change could take effect would be January of 2007.

John Barr is a reporter and Lindsay Rovegno is a producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."