Rules Of Engagement
This is one of those "I can't not" posts. I've avoided writing it for years, and you'll understand why in a moment. I just checked the drafts folder and I have a post in there that I wrote in 2018 on this subject which I never published. It's one of those topics that's nearly impossible to write about. I'll probably add ten "I'm not saying that, I'm saying this" disclaimers, yet everyone will still think I'm saying that. I can already tell that I'm stalling. Right to it.
As you probably know, my Illini experience is intentionally blind. I don't subscribe to any recruiting services, I don't follow any Illini media members besides the WCIA folks (that's WCIA, Channel 3, not the CIA), I don't pay for any paywalled scoop, and I barely have any sources or connections. If you've met me before in person, it's possible I've said this phrase to you: "you probably know more about it than me". I believe that to be a true statement most of the time. I'd guess that 90% of the people reading these words are more informed about "what's really going on" than I am.
The reasons for that are twofold:
- I want my writing to be fiercely independent. If the fanalysis written in this space is to be 100% my own, I have to go out of my way to avoid everyone else's thoughts and opinions or else I cannot guarantee that some of their chocolate hasn't mixed in with my peanut butter.
- Gossip destroys creativity. One step in the direction of "well I heard that his entire family wanted him to go to Illinois but his mom had this idea that she was in charge of his commitment and so she..." is a step towards destroying this site. Some people choose not to put processed sugars into their bodies; I choose to not put "well I heard that Arizona arranged for his dad to get a new job" into mine.
So that's our starting point. I'm on 247 and Rivals all the time, but I haven't read a recruiting article in 7-8 years. I simply scan the recruiting lists - offers, visit dates, etc. - and build out my spreadsheets (both on my computer and in my head). I have no issue with what those sites do - 22 year-old me would have killed for a website where I could see every player offered by every Big Ten team - so my rant below has nothing to do with what I call "recruiting websites". Vital part of following college sports these days.
In fact, I said in December that I honestly believe the 247 Composite Rankings are the reason Ohio State went to the Big Ten Championship game (after the conference changed its own rules) and was then voted into the College Football Playoff. Ohio State's six wins prior to getting that CFP bid:
4-5 Penn State
2-5 Michigan State
Best opponent was Indiana, who they beat by 7, and their only other opponent with a winning record was Northwestern, who they beat 22-10. That's not a CFP resume, but hey, it's a pandemic, and their games against Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland were canceled, and it's not their fault they couldn't play anyone else, so lets change the rules, send them to the conference title game, and vote them into the playoff. The answer to the question of "on what basis are they one of the four best teams?" is simple: 4-stars and 5-stars. They were one of the five best teams on paper before the season, and they never got to prove it during the season, so let's just slide them into the playoff based on that talent. They have 14 five-stars and 52 four-stars on their roster, so we can be pretty certain they're one of the four best teams.
I don't think that happens 25 years ago. If the pandemic hit in 1996 (and if there was a four-team playoff in 1996), I can't see Ohio State sliding into the playoff just based on observed talent. Had that season played out just like this season (SEC and Big 12 play most of their schedules - Big Ten plays conference-only, starts in late October, and Ohio State plays only six games), there's no way a 1996 committee says "yeah, those six mediocre wins are good enough to prove that you belong in this playoff". But in 2020, armed with some analytics saying "teams that recruit this well (thanks, 247 Composite) and return a lot of players almost always win", the CFP Committee put Ohio State in.
I say all of that so you understand that I think recruiting coverage is a vital part of following college sports. The better the recruiting information - and that goes all the way down to finding out that this shooting guard over here actually has offers from Villanova and Michigan State and that means his ranking should go up a bit - the better the sport. We are all better off because Rivals and 247 have their reporters talk to kids and parents to get the offers/visits/favorites information.
That information should be left to Rivals and 247. Furthermore, someone like me (a fan with a website) should never touch it. FURTHERMORE, every day fans should never, ever contact recruits or their parents. Ever ever ever ever ever.
Let's start with me. As you probably know because I tell you all the time, I don't contact recruits. In 12 years of doing this, I believe I've DM'd with exactly one recruit before they arrived on campus: Mike Epstein. He contacted me to say that he had new highlights posted to Hudl, and when Cubit was fired and Lovie hired (meaning Epstein had committed to Beckman and then re-committed to Cubit and then re-committed to Lovie), I DM'd him to get a quote for a story about the three head coaches in eight months.
This is my full-time job now, but I still won't contact recruits. I am not a journalist, and I say "we" when writing about the Illini, and a guy who really wants that four-star tight end to pick Illinois should not speak to that four-star tight end. I don't think I have to explain the "why" here, but there are about 344 potential recruiting violations when a fan contacts a Prospective Student Athlete. If you've donated $5 to a University, you fall under the NCAA's definition of "booster", and if a booster contacts a recruit that school may be banned from recruiting that athlete.
It's one of the reasons I've never donated to the I-Fund or anything else DIA. I had the blog in the back of my mind, and I knew that if I donated I'd be in the "booster" category, and I never wanted to cross that line. I probably do have a limb or two across the line - the actual NCAA definition of booster is someone who is "representative of the institution's athletic interests", and, I mean, every SOC is representative of our athletic interests, right? - but I still never donated because I did not want to cross the booster line. The passageway for "not a fan, but not media either" is extremely narrow in spots, so I've always been hyper-aware of the rules. Besides my Cal Ripken Jr. Future Stars baseball card - currently valued around $60 - that press pass is my greatest possession. I won't do anything to put it at risk.
But that's just me. And that's not the point here. The point here is waking up today and seeing that Brandin Podziemski tweet at the top. "To put rumors/speculation to rest"? What rumors/speculation? I know I'm flying blind here, and I don't read any "get inside" paywalled information, but I feel like I would have seen even the slightest Twitter speculation if, say, Vanderbilt reporters were saying that Podziemski was considering a change after Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua left Illinois. What are the "rumors/speculation' he's attempting to put to rest?
So I searched. And I searched and I searched and I searched. I could not find a single tweet from a single fan (or reporter) speculating that Podziemski was considering asking out of his LOI. I found this tweet from a Kentucky fan pointing out that the "former Kentucky target" had been ranked 59th in the final Rivals rankings and 66th in the final 247 rankings (maybe trying to settle a "why are we recruiting this no-name" argument from months prior), but that was it. Seriously, besides Illini tweets, that was it. Not finding a single "rumor has it Podziemski is considering Miami again" from a reporter or "hey @brandinpodziem2 you should back out of your Illinois commitment and stay home at Marquette" from a fan is quite remarkable. Not one.
And that's just searching Twitter. My Google search didn't land on any articles anywhere mentioning anything about Podz possibly reconsidering. Maybe there's stuff behind paywalls, but you know my rule: if it's behind a paywall, there's a reason. And that reason is usually "don't really want to attach my name to this so I'll just put it here where no one will hold me to it".
We're finally to my point.
All of this left me with one chilling thought: if Brandon Podziemski felt the need to "put any rumors/speculation to rest", and there wasn't one single ounce of rumor or speculation anywhere on the internet, then the call was coming from inside the house. All of the speculation - all of it - was coming from Illini fans and/or "media".
I put media in quotes the same way I put it in quotes when referring to myself. I do not work for a media organization. I do not have a journalism degree. I write for a site called "IlliniBoard" which is clearly for-fans/by-fans. This is my full-time job now, and I have a credential, a seat on press row in the State Farm Center, and even a specific "that's Robert's seat" chair in the football pressbox, but I am still "media". And because I have to put it in quotes, I apply an extra layer of rules just for myself.
Why do I do that? Because of stuff like this. Because people doing this as a hobby are DM-ing Brandin Podziemski "ARE YOU GOING TO DECOMMIT???" and fake insiders with fake information are spreading "I'm hearing Podziemski is wavering" rumors and so he feels the need to go public on Twitter saying "despite all of the speculation I'm sticking with Illinois". Rumors and speculation, based on my research, fueled 100% by Illini fans.
I feel like I'm the only person who can say these things. I did this as my hobby for eleven years and never crossed that line a single time FOR THIS VERY REASON. Fans. Should. Not. Talk. To. Recruits.
I'm going to take a 10 minute break because I'm fuming and I should never write while angry.
Still angry. So let's write some things I'll regret.
I'm not an insider, but I do talk to Illini people all the time. This is all I do now, so of course I'm going to talk to people who talk to people. One of those people told me that if I wanted the scoop on why AJ Storr decommitted from Illinois, I should talk to Ryan Foran because he talks to AJ's mom all the time. Wait, who?
I knew that name from Twitter interactions, and so I looked up Ryan Foran. Seems to be just a guy on Twitter who self-identifies as a "hoops junkie" and tweets about Illinois basketball all the time (which has gained him 1,700 followers). There's no link to any website or blog, so I'm guessing he's just a fan with a Twitter account and that's it. And, uh, this person converses with AJ Storr's mom all the time?
The hell are we doing, people? Fans DMing recruit's moms and then letting people know that they're the source if you want to know anything about AJ Storr? Uncredentialed fan sites contacting recruits for interviews? What in the hell are we doing?
If you don't think this kind of stuff is damaging, well, I just searched Ryan Foran's Twitter feed for an example. Check out the reply here:
So this is how our kids are being treated now? @TheMacIrvinFire— Nike Meanstreets (@MeanstreetsEYB) May 2, 2021
If you don't speak Twitter, that's one of the two biggest AAU programs in Chicago tagging the other one calling out an Illini fan for making a "good luck playing point guard at LSU, Adam Miller" joke. Why would MeanStreets care? Because Foran has 1,700 followers, and that tweet got algorithm'd around Twitter with its 39 retweets and 307 likes, all with Belo's face attached. You tweet about Illini basketball a lot, you gain a large following, and then you take that following and... damage the program? What. The hell. Are we doing.
I knew this whole world existed. When you cover a team (at least pre-pandemic), you get close to certain players from chatting after practice or after games. Perhaps the best thing a credential provides is that 5-minute one-on-one interview after practice (plus the pre-interview and post-interview chat).
In one of those chats, a player referenced a meeting that incoming freshman attended where they were taught the media/player access rules. One of the rules is "you can ignore all DM's - we will set up all of your interviews" and that was welcome relief. The DM's, I'm sure, get overwhelming.
If you're unfamiliar with the rules, all player-media contact must go through the school at approved times (like my chat with the player after practice that day). The reason? If that wasn't the case, anyone with a Twitter or Instagram account could just DM Kofi, pretend to be a media member, and create all kids of havoc (imagine some Michigan fan DMing Kofi pretending to be an Illini media member and asking for comment on the fact that Illinois was no longer holding a roster spot for him). So the rule the players must follow is that all interviews go through the Sports Information Department (which means all interviews only go to known, verified media members).
That's not the case when the kids are in high school. Anyone can DM high school kids (yes the creepiness of that statement should creeping creep you out). Anyone can tell them they're a media member looking to write a story. So for this player I was chatting with, finally getting out from under "how much do I have to tell this guy?" was a huge relief. Kids love exposure, but after a time, I'm guessing they all reach a point where they just want to be left alone. Now, finally, the school can do the screening.
I remember that conversation mostly because it made me feel great about my self-imposed rules. I wasn't credentialed when I started the blog - my application was rejected in 2009, I didn't cover my first game in a pressbox until the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in December 2011, and didn't get an Illinois press pass until the 2013 football season - and part of building that trust was the school never getting reports that I was contacting their athletes (or recruits) via DM. So at the time I was like "good job, Robert - your rule following paid off this time".
I'm off track, but it's a good thing that I'm off track because I've calmed down. I should just state my point here.
I believe in Rules Of Engagement. Those rules (which I've made for myself since I'm a fan in the pressbox) state that only Rivals and 247 (or some other actual media organization which covers recruiting) should contact recruits. Beat writers too, I guess - knock yourself out - but the moment "fan" enters the equation, shut it down. And yes, I realize that some kid writing for the Michigan 247 site is a massive Michigan fan and will try to hint to the recruit he's talking to that Ohio State sucks. That's 247's problem to deal with, and I'm sure they have policies and procedures in place. The point here is that fans should not talk to recruits.
And Exhibit A is the Brandon Podziemski tweet above. The sewing circle of Illini Twitter whipped up some panic, created confusion where there was none, and in their thirst for WHAT ARE YOU HEARING pushed a narrative far enough that a kid had to make a public statement that he wasn't backing out of his LOI (which he couldn't do anyway). And if this sewing circle is capable of something like that, it's capable of much worse. You know, like a fan on Twitter without even an affiliation to some blog being someone who apparently talks "all the time" to the mother of a player who just decommitted.
Look, there are no laws here. There are recruiting violations being risked, but you can't have someone arrested for DMing recruits and their parents. And no, I don't think that I'll write this and then suddenly there's some big "I read what Robert wrote and decided to stop" revelation. It will likely get much worse in the months and years ahead.
But just know that fanbases self-police this stuff all the time. If some Georgia football fan was creeping out recruits with constant DM's, that Georgia fan would be shamed into oblivion for putting the program at risk. Even if it's not a recruiting violation (it likely is), Georgia Twitter would know that the creep factor would lessen their chances of landing the recruit.
Remember when Illinois was recruiting Mark Smith and Michigan State blogger Hondo Carpenter drove from East Lansing to Edwardsville for a sit-down "isn't Tom Izzo the greatest" interview? This is how Michigan State fans reacted. The consensus, from that link:
Hondo Carpenter driving over 450 miles to interview Smith and his family then posting about it with photos could never be interpreted as a positive for MSU basketball any way you spin it.
Did Kentucky, Ohio State or the Illini see some independent freelancer like Hondo show up at Smith's door step? If a Hondo type was viewed as hurting UK's recruiting effort they would be banned from campus, maybe from Lexington.
That's pretty much my entire point here. At other campuses, such behavior would be "banned from campus, maybe from Lexington". Meaning, fanbases go out of their way to deliver the "NO FANS IN FRONT OF RECRUITS" message. I don't see the same around Illini land, but I do see one player decommitting and another player putting out an "I'm still coming" statement so I'm absolutely frightened to know what's happening behind the curtain.
Which is why I'm writing this. My very public plea: if you are an Illini fan, please stop contacting recruits. Please stop DMing Brandin Podziemski asking if he's going to decommit. This isn't hard. Rivals and 247 (plus some beat writers) do a fine job of providing recruiting information. The coaches do a fine job of recruiting.
Nobody needs your help.
As someone pointed out on Twitter, I published this without a response from the person mention in the article (Ryan Foran). I sent him a Twitter DM ten minutes before publishing, but I did not specifically ask for comment. My thinking at the time was that this was a fan with no business interests here at all (and not some website-owner in the recruit-contacting business), but I can see how I should have asked for comment.
He did respond at 7:15 pm. He claimed that AJ Storr's mom contacted him, not the other way around. Because this is still the issue I was writing about - fans cannot have those conversations with recruits or parents - I asked if he would commit publicly to no longer having contact with Illini recruits and families. His response:
"If a player or a player's parent contacts me I will absolutely and happily reply EVERY SINGLE TIME with a pro-Illini message"
This, of course, is my entire point. These conversations, regardless of who initiated them, cannot take place.
I did notify him that this was not a private DM conversation and that everything he was telling me was on the record and would be published. If you'd like proof that he saw this, he did respond:
"Are you a cop? We're on record lmao?"
The conversation went on from there, but I don't think I need to share all of it. As to whether he messages with recruits and parents, which was my statement in the article, he specifically confirmed such in his last DM to me. I won't share the end of this response - it becomes personal, and I'll let him share that part publicly if he wants - but this was his statement:
"Parents of recruits reach out to me ALL OF THE TIME. AJ's mom reaching out is no different. I'm a good person with great intentions"
Intentions or not, my entire point rests here. Those conversations, fan-to-recruit or fan-to-parent, must stop.