lsu kid

Our football recruiting Twitter problem

Jan 8, 2014
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Last night, the Texas Longhorns lost their first recruit from next year’s incoming class following the hiring of Charlie Strong. Trey Lealaimatafao, 1 a defensive tackle from San Antonio, “Officially 100% decommitted” from the Longhorns after Texas’ DT coach Bo Davis saw the writing on the wall and left for USC.

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen. A coaching change is going to result in some lost recruits, especially when the position coaches who do the lion’s share of the actual recruiting of these teenagers move on with the regime change.

What’s perfectly unreasonable can be found on Lealaimatafao’s Twitter timeline. After announcing via Twitter he was, again, “Officially 100% decommitted” from the Longhorns, the kid received hundreds of responses, retweets, and favorites. Fans from just about every program flocked to his Twitter feed to try to sway Lealaimatafao to choose their team (unofficially, he’s down to choosing between UCLA and Oregon), along with the occasional wayward Texas fan expressing disappointment. And not just high school kids. We’re talking about grown-ass men.

A sampling of @ replies directed at the young man of Polynesian decent:

“#Boomer.”

“#LSU.”

“The Aggies need you.”

“Be a Duck.”

And my favorite, which I imagine some snowed-in dude in Akron grunt-typing: “Ohio State need linemen.”

I’m not embedding those tweets or directing you to Lealaimatafao’s Twitter profile for a reason. 2

I don’t want to be part of the problem.

College football and our unbridled addiction to it are breeding a disturbing climate that the young men who we love to cheer for now reside in. And I’m not talking about creating the environment that leads to sense of entitlement that makes our Heisman Trophy winners think they can literally do anything, from hanging out with Drake to maybe probably sexually assaulting someone and getting off scott free.

This climate exists online, where much of our lives now take place. For teenagers, that’s the case exponentially.

Some background about me: I covered high school sports for the San Antonio Express-News for three years before moving to Houston for a job that doesn’t include “constant threat of layoffs” as one of the included benefits. In my three years, I covered and wrote stories about a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) and numerous other kids who are now studs in college and already making me feel old (Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro, Texas RB Malcolm Brown, Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight, etc.). My job duties at the E-N were your typical beat reporter assignments: game coverage, feature stories, blogging, etc.

But by the end of my time there in September 2013, a huge part of my job became maintaining and monitoring the high school sports Twitter universe of San Antonio, since that’s where actual news involving kids happens now. Star recruits announce (or recant) their college plans there, kids spread rumors that the QB at the rival school is ineligible, cheerleaders post photos from a Halloween kegger that got busted and resulted in multiple arrests, MIPs, suspensions, and a police report perfectly accessible by reporters.

Over those three short years, I saw Twitter grow into a monster and we abided. Our high school section’s Twitter handle soon exploded in popularity once we figured something out: Pre-2009, kids would cut out a newspaper story when their names were mentioned in a story. Now, getting mentioned in a tweet from @mysahighschools is making it.

The pervasiveness of Twitter was never more apparent than when looking at the profiles of top recruits. Your average high school athlete uses Twitter a lot like you, presumably an average sports fan, do: They joke around with friends and retweet stupid Vines. The Rivals-certified athlete, adorned with make believe stars to denote their worth, uses Twitter as a form of electronic crack. It provides them with an ego boost unlike any other, making them more than just Big Men on Campus. They’re Big Men on the Internet.

But like crack, there’s a downside. For every cyber supporter, there’s a troll. Kids who would never be able to take on a 300-pounder like Lealaimatafao on the field  can lob roundhouses on Twitter with ease. The aforementioned adults who root for opposite teams can shame a player for choosing the wrong team.

Then there’s the recruiting media. This is tough for me to write, because I personally know and like a lot of guys involved in this business. Guys that work for Rivals, 247 Sports, ESPN, and Scout. They are all (usually) well-intentioned reporters who are just doing their jobs. But their jobs happen to be often operating as pseudo-stalkers of 17-year-olds. These are the guys who constantly text and call hot-shot recruits with the hope of breaking a story 1.5 seconds before their competitors.

The national all-star games are an unholy microcosm of this. Rivals and 247 Sports have both sponsored the major all-star games, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, and Under Armour All-American Game. The games serve as an excuse for selected players to receive an abundance of Adidas and Under Armour swag while and handful of them use the national TV broadcast (watched by family members and geriatrics who can’t find the remote) to select what college they’ll be attending, leading to moments like this. The lead up to the games are documented by the recruiting reporters, who report every practice moment as if it’s the Super Bowl: BREAKING – Future Florida State left tackle executes block at half speed.

The recruiting reporting business has always left me feeling uncomfortable, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. What most people don’t take into account is the effect the recruiting media is having on the kids it covers.

Many of these recruits aren’t repulsed by the reporters who follow their every move. Some can’t get enough of it. I’m  99 percent certain one player I covered in San Antonio announced a commitment to one school just for the attention. Why? He decommitted days later and said as much. This all played out on Twitter, with Rivals and Co. documenting every step of the way.

I can’t shake the sense that it’s all incredibly unhealthy for all involved. For the recruits, it creates a weird world of simultaneous praise and criticism. Unreasonable fans now have unfettered access to teenagers. And the media drives the whole thing, because recruiting rankings closely trail BCS rankings in terms of college football importance.

I don’t have a solution. Twitter is like anything else we obsess over, constructive and destructive at the same time. I check it as much as any of you. What I do think is needed is some perspective. Love college football all you want, but leave the cyber stalking out of it . . . at least until they get to campus.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I typed that name from memory.
  2. If you have the Internet and some interest, you’ll find your way there on your own.

Texas-bred, BBQ, blues and baseball enthusiast.