The ugly side of social media

The college decision is difficult for nearly every recruit. There are factors to weigh, coaches to get to know, families to consider and often pressure from fans to block out.

Sometimes 17-year-olds don't make the right decision the first time. Sometimes they decide too early. Sometimes things change. Sometimes they change.

But some fans always feel they should give their opinions.

When Michigan head coach Brady Hoke arrived on campus, he instituted a rule that is fairly uncommon among top Division I programs: Commits aren't allowed to visit other schools after they commit to Michigan. David Dawson (Detroit/Cass Tech), the No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN 150, committed on a weekend in February 2012 that saw eight Wolverines commitments, but by the fall he was reconsidering, citing an interest to see other schools.

In October, when Dawson and Michigan parted ways, he was still readjusting to life in Michigan again after moving to Houston for a year, and his father had just been killed in a roadside accident. But none of that seemed to matter to Wolverines supporters. Fans sent him Twitter and Facebook messages telling him they hoped he broke his leg or that he was a "piece of s---."

Worst of all, some fans took shots at his late father.

"They said a couple things about my dad, like, 'He didn't teach you to keep your word,'" Dawson said.

He was able to chalk it up to ignorance, people not knowing his situation. He figured not many recruits got reactions like this, that maybe the Wolverines' fan base was just extra involved.

But he was sorely mistaken. That reaction is all too common.

Top overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) received everything from hate mail to death threats following his decommitment from Clemson in November. So did Ricky Seals-Jones (Sealy, Texas/Sealy) when he chose to part ways with Texas in June.

"When I decommitted, it was crazy," Seals-Jones told ESPN.com in July. "I got death threats on Twitter. A couple cars in my neighborhood we didn't know would drive by the house real slow. I live in the country, so the cars that do drive by, you know who's in them. I guess for some people, it's that serious."

It's not rare for these kids, who receive such attention for their athletic abilities, to -- like any other kid -- question themselves.

But rarely do people look at these 17-year-olds and compare them to teenagers they know personally. Those juniors and seniors in high school might cheat on exams or drink underage, choices that when considered objectively might be worse than a kid who changes his mind about where he'll spend the next three or four years.

But the anonymous Internet bullies don't care. Behind the mask of avatars and usernames, all is fair under the First Amendment.

When Nkemdiche decommitted, he was called everything from a prima donna and mama's boy to curse words and racial slurs. Some fans even suggested he was receiving money from different colleges.

Finally he stopped reading the Facebook messages (they number somewhere in the thousands) and ultimately deactivated his Twitter account.

"It was just too much," Nkemdiche said. "There was always something going on, and I could not say anything without getting misquoted. People took whatever I said and would twist it around, and it got too crazy for me."‬‬

In time, he returned to Twitter, but the attention never stopped. After his official visit to Florida, his Twitter followers more than doubled to 16,780. And after his official visit to Ole Miss just a week later, they jumped again to more than 39,000.

That number of Twitter followers is more than the follower counts of some players who will start in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The Ravens' leading tackler, Bernard Pollard, has 22,000 followers. And Andy Lee, starting punter for the 49ers, has 18,000.

With that kind of attention, Nkemdiche knows that extra detail needs to be given to social media. He advises future recruits to keep their personal lives personal.

ESPN 150 WR Sebastian LaRue (Santa Monica, Calif./Santa Monica) used a very straightforward tweet on Jan. 2 to announce his decommitment from USC. It read, "Decommitted from USC," blunt enough not to leave room for many doubters.

He used the power of social media for good, in a manner of speaking, by proactively announcing his decommitment to his followers. It got more than 150 retweets and plenty of responses, but for LaRue -- who took the time to read every single reply -- this was an opportunity to avoid fabrications.

"I felt like it was the easiest way ... so there wouldn't be any speculation or anything like that or rumors that they heard it from someone else that I had possibly, maybe decommitted from USC," LaRue said. "I just wanted to put it out there before the rumors got started."

LaRue has been very careful about everything he has put on Twitter and has urged fellow prospect to do the same. His advice is not to joke around about anything on social media because words, ellipses or accidental question marks can and will be misconstrued.

Penn State quarterback commit Christian Hackenberg (Fork Union, Va./Fork Union Military Academy) knows that lesson well. Although the No. 1-ranked quarterback never wavered in his commitment, he lived under the intense scrutiny that he would or could or should leave.

One day, he tweeted:

Canes, as in Raising Cane's, a popular restaurant in Charlottesville, Va., where he and his father were going for dinner.

But the tweet had enough for some to implicate that Hackenberg had interest in the Miami Hurricanes. Within minutes there were posts, tweets, stories and texts speculating about a decommitment.

"After that incident, I've really thought about every move I've made on social media," Hackenberg said. "My parents had warned me about it before, but I didn’t really think that tweet would be that big of a deal. I guess it was. From then I've double- and triple-checked everything before I put it out there."

The level of care that goes in to recruits' tweets just doesn't exist to a fan who can easily remain anonymous. Several prospects have used social media well and enjoyed their experience, but college football fans cross lines all too often.

Eventually, Dawson recommitted to Michigan, and the Wolverines welcomed him with open arms. Not just the coaches, but the fans, too.

Dawson said he received emails, tweets and messages from people saying they loved him, often from the same people who bashed him.

Shortly after he recommitted to Michigan, a member on a message board wrote, "… for those people who trashed the young man following his decommitment, this is why you don't do that."

Is that the only reason you don't trash a 17-year-old kid -- in case he recommits to your school?

In the recruit's mind it's about the education, opportunities and atmosphere. Dawson will be the first to tell you he didn't do everything perfectly, but he knew his college decision was one that would impact the rest of his life.

It won't make that kind of impact in the life of a fan. College teams will be the first to say that one player doesn't make or break a team or class or program. And the decision of one teenager, no matter how skilled, fast or quick, will ultimately affect the course of one person's life: the athlete himself. To sit behind the comfort of a computer screen and pretend differently, well, it's downright wrong.

And that's something the recruits could even say to someone's face.