They called him a traitor and much worse.
When coveted five-star running back Damien Harris retracted his commitment to Michigan last month, he found himself in the eye of the most modern type of storm.
On Twitter, a rabid fringe of fans messaged the Kentucky high school junior. Supporters of other suitors — including Ohio State — renewed their sales pitches while a megaphone-wielding minority of Michigan followers vented.
RELATED ARTICLE: Uncertainty surrounds recruiting class for Rockets
A college-aged man from Monroe simply directed a string of expletives at Harris, including the recruit’s Twitter handle in the message to ensure it was seen by his target.
“Honestly, I was just upset at the time because he’s most likely going to go to OSU,” the man said in a message to a reporter before shutting down further questions.
For schools across the country, the backlash to the whims of a 16-year-old prospect represented an increasing nightmare.
Harris still considers Michigan his top school, but the response on Twitter to the decommitment left his high school coach in Berea, Ky., fuming. Jon Clark told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “A kid will never make a decision to go somewhere because of fans or the media. But kids will make a decision not to go places because of that.”
Which begged the question: Can a small group of oft-anonymous agitators truly influence where a prospect attends school?
Though the NCAA prohibits fans from contacting unsigned recruits, the rule is not practical to enforce. Top prospects receive hundreds of messages, which are unfailingly over-the-top positive until they are just the opposite.
As college football prepares for Wednesday’s secular holiday known as signing day, Twitter is changing the recruiting game in a way that analysts say privately worries college coaches.
While fans have not fundamentally changed over time, Twitter now gives the most passionate ones direct access to players and recruits — nearly all of whom actively post on public profiles. Something a fan would not tell a prospect on the street suddenly becomes fair game via tweet.
“Social media can really screw up a program,” said Tom Lemming, a national recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “I call them cyber muscles instead of beer muscles. When something doesn’t go their way, they spew their hatred because they’re anonymous. ... They can’t say it, but all the coaches privately wish the fans would just shut up.
“Since they’re not on the field coaching or playing, they want to have some small part in this, whether it’s praising a kid and building him up as a legion of sycophants or ... turning on the players viciously.”
In a later phone interview with The Blade, Clark called the new social media landscape disorienting for a high school recruit.
“I could go on about this for hours, my man,” said Clark, who is in his third year at Madison Southern High after several college stops, including jobs at Auburn, Syracuse, Idaho State, and his alma mater, Ohio University. “I used to be a college coach, so I’d never been on this end.”
Harris’ experience reflects a reality seen at all levels of sports, where the venom of a few can leave distorted impressions of massive fan bases.
Last season, for instance, Alabama kicker Cade Foster received death threats on Twitter after he missed three field goals in the Crimson Tide’s loss to Auburn. And, though less dramatic, dozens of unhinged fans spit venom at two Ohio State players after the Buckeyes’ loss in the Orange Bowl. Injured NFL-bound cornerback Bradley Roby stood accused by the Twitter tribunal of “quitting” on his teammates by sitting out to protect his draft stock, while senior receiver Corey Brown muffed a late punt.
“The fact that people Tweeting at me sayin’ all this negativity is crazy to me,” Roby posted on Twitter, one of several messages players fired back at critics. “It makes me ashamed to even have played for y’all.”
He later added, “[Shout out] to the REAL Buckeye nation for showing so much love. We truly have the best fans in the land! And I enjoyed playing for you.”
Only in recruiting, though, can social media tangibly affect a program.
“Fans on Twitter, whether you really believe it or not, have an impact on where some of these kids go," said Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com.
Said Lemming: “The kids are all on social media, and they all want to know what people say about them. They’re still children, in limbo between kids and grown men, and a lot of them are sensitive.”
What can be done is unclear. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said his staff looks at prospective recruits’ Twitter profiles as a gauge of their character — “I have people whose full‑time job is to monitor Facebooks and tweets and all that stuff,” he said — but fans are beyond a school’s control.
About all that can be done is going straight to the source to instruct fans on Twitter etiquette.
“Dear fans tweeting recruits: please stop,” University of Miami assistant athletic director Chris Yandle recently wrote on Twitter. “It’s creepy. And sending hate tweets is unnecessary and immature. Have some class.”
For now, though, the new world remains the Old West. Harris is just the latest to wade through the turbulent frontier.
Ranked the No. 5 overall prospect in next year’s class by Rivals.com, Harris has not spoken to reporters since backing off his pledge to UM last month. Clark said the junior just wanted to explore his options after committing early, though the Wolverines remain the frontrunner.
Even if Harris isn’t thrilled with all of their fans.
“Now let’s be honest, are some of those probably fake accounts from Ohio State fans? I wouldn’t be surprised," Clark said. “But it’s ridiculous. This is a 16-year-old kid that’s being verbally assaulted. You talk about cyber bullying. Does it get any more extreme than that?
“Someone told me if he doesn’t want people to comment on him, then he shouldn’t have a Twitter. The last time I checked, a 16-year-old kid is allowed to have a Twitter. What makes it OK for a 45-year-old man to [swear at] him publicly on social media? That’s allowed. It’s just amazing. He commits to Michigan, and Ohio State fans berate him on Twitter, and Michigan loves him. He decommits, and Ohio State fans are all over him and love him again, and Michigan fans hate him.”