The murky moral high ground in college football recruiting may have become even less defined over the past week following a major scandal in which a Georgia fan reached out to call a recruit and ask him about his commitment status with the Bulldogs.
As covered in detail by Rivals.com Georgia affiliate site UGASports.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, College of the Sequoias (Calif.) defensive back Steven Nelson was directly contacted by a self-professed Georgia fan on the telephone after reports circulated that he had switched his college commitment from Georgia to Texas Tech. Nelson insists he never backed off his commitment to the Bulldogs, but a California newspaper reported the alleged commitment switch, despite Nelson's staunch insistence that no such switch ever occurred after the report was published.
According to the Journal-Constitution, Nelson said that he and the fan spoke for between 5-10 minutes before the call ended, the interrogator apparently content with the knowledge that Nelson was still planning on enrolling in Athens in fall 2013.
"I get phone calls almost every day from college recruiters and reporters," Nelson told the Journal-Constitution. "He called me up, and I forgot what his name was. The way he was talking, I thought he was a reporter, so I stayed on the phone. He was just trying to convince me to stay with Georgia, told me how good of a player I was, and wished me a good year.
"I didn't think nothing of it until somebody called me, an ESPN guy, who told me the guy put it on Twitter that he talked to me on the phone."
UGASports.com became caught up in the scandal when the caller in question began to boast about reaching out to recruits on the site's popular message board, DawgVent. The site immediately acted to rid the perpetrator from the community, first deleting the message thread and then banning him from further posts after the alleged caller sent threatening emails to the UGASports staff.
"One of my guys contacted me and said there was somebody on DawgVent saying they had been calling prospects of UGA," UGASports.com publisher Steve Patterson told the Journal-Constitution. "As we all know, that's against NCAA bylaws, which are very encompassing when it comes to things like that … The site staff removed the post. Then after that, the guy went on and on about how [he] could do that if he wanted, and [to heck with] the NCAA. Then the guy sent some harassing emails to our staff. They contacted me and asked what to do, and I said blacklist him and have him contact me. That's the last we all heard of it until he made some other posts around the Internet.
"Over the years, we've gone out of the way to be very educated as a staff at UGASports on the NCAA rules, and we've written extensively on the various bylaw changes. We've actually withheld doing things the way some other people in business, you could say, operate when it comes to dealing with coaches because of that, because we're a dot-com, and we're held to a little bit of suspicion in the first place. So we've always kept a very even keel when it comes to NCAA rules."
There's no question that UGASports immediately did the right thing in this case, both by banning the braggadocious caller and reporting him to Georgia officials. Still, the initial outreach, and the use of that call as a fan boy soapbox to try and enhance his own credibility within a virtual community, is truly disturbing for both college fan culture and the lack of guards against such behavior in the recruiting process. One of the key delineations between a "fan" and a "booster" by NCAA definition is assisting in recruiting a prospect over the telephone, via social media or in person. As soon as that happens, an NCAA rule has been violated, which puts Georgia and Nelson at risk, too.
In this case, neither the player nor the school had any idea what was going on with a rogue fan's outreach. Furthermore, Georgia itself acted quickly to investigate the matter after Patterson made the school's compliance office aware of the message board poster's claims.
For now, the issue appears to be resolved, with Georgia confident that no secondary violation occurred. Still, it paints a troubling picture for the future of recruiting in the ever-rabid world of college football during an era where public information is more available than ever before.
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