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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Recruits deal with unknowns on social media

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Like most high-profile college football recruits, Central Catholic's Jayme Thompson encounters scores of fans he does not know.

"These kids are known all over the place," said his father, Deon Thompson. "Guys come up all the time asking, 'Hey, can I have an autograph?' Can I have a picture?' And you're just taught to be polite. 'Sure no problem.'"

But Deon Thompson believes his son's recognition requires added vigilance. He knows virtually everyone Jayme, an Ohio State commit, interacts with on social media. Dad has the password to Jayme's account on Twitter and vets his 3,400-plus friends on Facebook.

"I'm probably a little more overzealous than most," said Deon Thompson, a social worker.

There is good reason.

The decision of a top Ohio State football recruit to back off his commitment Friday over concerns a sex offender was corresponding with Buckeyes athletes casts into focus the challenges presented by a new media landscape -- and the difficulty major programs face in shielding players from the fringe of their fan bases.

Although an athletic program can disassociate from boosters accused of wrongdoing, Ohio State stated the fan in this case was not affiliated with the university.

OSU instead suffered from the perception of guilt by association as Alex Anzalone, a Wyomissing, Pa., native regarded among the top linebackers in the country, de-committed after learning that a 31-year-old man he met during a recent recruiting visit to Columbus was on Kentucky's sex offender registry.

The bizarre saga exposed the dark side of the increasing access fans have to athletes -- and marked perhaps the first time a single fan has been blamed for steering a recruit away from a school.

"We've seen kids in the past react negatively to comments that people made about them on a message board," said Jeremy Crabtree, senior recruiting director at ESPN. "Say a kid visits Ohio State, and says, 'Well, I still like Michigan a little bit like because it's Michigan.' Some fans will [criticize] the kid. What kids read on the Internet about them has affected their college decision. But I haven't seen something at a level like this."

Charles Eric Waugh of Ashland, Ky., who pleaded guilty in 2008 to downloading child pornography from the Internet, recently began reaching out via Facebook and Twitter to dozens of OSU players and recruits.

Waugh also met high school prospects in person, posing for a photograph with Anzalone and two other recruits at a Columbus restaurant after Ohio State's annual spring game.

The interactions and messages on Twitter, which contained inspirational quotes from athletes like legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, appeared unusual but innocuous at first. Anzalone is grinning with his arm around Waugh in the photograph that has circulated around the Internet. Two current Ohio State players even arranged on Twitter to meet Waugh for lunch one day.

But the contact stopped when OSU learned last week of Waugh's past. The athletic department warned its athletes in a mass email, including a link to a news story on Waugh and directions on how to block a person on Facebook and Twitter.

Anzalone's father, Sal, said he believes Ohio State's coaches were unaware of Waugh's background, but expressed disappointment the man had access to recruits during their visit.

"You expect the staff to have some sort of control on how things are handled with recruits when they visit," Sal Anzalone told the Reading Eagle newspaper. "This is ridiculous. I was concerned with what recruits do and with them being allowed to visit these kind of places where it puts kids at risk. That's the issue."

Few others, however, held Ohio State culpable in this instance.

"You can't follow the recruits around everywhere because they've got to be able to have fun," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "And this [photograph] occurred after the spring game when a bunch of kids were going out to eat."

He believes the incident will cause schools to become more aware of the fans who lurk on the periphery of the program.

"You can't control everybody who's around kids," Farrell said, "but you can run a tight ship."

The complicating factor, of course, is social media. A majority of college athletes, including those at Ohio State, have Facebook and Twitter accounts that allow them to interact with strangers.

Their messages can also tip off their location to fans like Waugh, who seek opportunities to meet them.

Short of banning players from using Twitter -- a move a handful of football programs, including Boise State, have enacted -- athletes will continue to encounter problematic supporters in the digital realm.

"Everybody has access to these kids," Deon Thompson said. "At the same time, you don't want to be rude to the next guy who happens to be an innocent fan."

Crabtree called policing social media a "can't-win battle."

Thompson believes responsibility ultimately lies with the player and, as with his family, the parent. Schools cannot keep an eye on everyone.

"Are you going to do a background check on everybody who walks through the stadium gate?" Thompson said.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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