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Original Issue

Thumb Wrestling for Recruits

Somewhere at this moment, a college basketball coach is hunched over his smartphone, furiously thumbing out adoring text messages to hoops stars half his age as if his job depended on it, which it very well might. He's tapping out something like: OMG! U plyd gr8 at the camp last wkd!! Do u want to start for us right now? LOL! Or maybe: We're getting new uniforms nxt yr. What # should we order 4 u?

No longer bound by an NCAA ban, Division I men's basketball coaches can now chase prospective recruits with the fervor of middle school girls pursuing Justin Bieber. As of last Friday recruiters are allowed to make as many calls and send as many texts as their relentless little hearts desire to players who have completed or are finishing their sophomore year of high school. (Previously they were only allowed to call from once a month to twice a week, depending on the recruit's year in school.) Coaches can also send direct messages to prospective recruits on Twitter, private messages on Facebook or get face time with players on Skype. In other words, there's nothing to keep them from electronically stalking—I mean, expressing a continued interest in—high school players all day, every day. This means each team will need at least one assistant on staff who is well-versed not just in X's and O's but LMAOs and BFFs, who can make a recruit feel loved in a 140-character tweet. It also means you should buy stock in T-Mobile.

I was prepared to hate the idea of a texting free-for-all. What would prevent college coaches, never models of restraint, from keeping every blue-chipper's phone on perma-vibrate? Despite the prohibition against sending even a single text, the Baylor men's and women's programs were nailed for sending more than 700 of them during a 29-month span, and former coach Kelvin Sampson was punished by the NCAA in 2006 and '08 for making hundreds of impermissible calls to recruits while at Oklahoma and Indiana. Some coaches obviously couldn't keep themselves from harassing prospects even when the reins were tight, so why turn them loose entirely? Isn't that like inviting a Weight Watchers class to an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Players seemed to expect the worst, as well, and braced themselves last week. Jabari Parker, a 6'9" forward from Chicago's Simeon Career Academy who's widely considered the No. 1 recruit from the class of 2013 (SI, May 21), reportedly changed his cellphone number in advance. Keith Frazier, a 6'5" guard from Kimball High in Dallas, told USA Today that he would "take it one holler at a time." But the onslaught hasn't occurred, at least not yet. Austin Nichols, a 6' 8" forward from Memphis, tweeted that he received about 40 texts in the first 24 hours, a manageable number for a teen. Jahlil Okafor, a 6'10" junior-to-be from Chicago, didn't receive many texts over the first weekend because he's given only his father Chuck's cell number to most recruiters. "I got more Happy Father's Day messages than I ever have before," said the older Okafor, "but that's about it."

Given the initial restraint shown by coaches, maybe removing the restrictions isn't as crazy as it sounds. Back in the dark ages—say, 2005—before unlimited texting plans were common, the NCAA was concerned that a hotly pursued recruit might be saddled with costly cellphone bills from constant texts from schools. Now, a teenager without an unlimited plan is as rare as a phone booth. The NCAA Leadership Council, which proposed the new rules, also wanted to increase the chance for direct contact between recruiters and recruits. College coaches won't have to rely on sometimes unscrupulous middlemen—street agents, AAU coaches, relatives or others—to get their message across to players. "We had previously regulated ourselves away from relationship-building with these young people, unintentionally allowing third parties greater access than our coaches," Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, the chairman of the council, said when the announcement was made last week.

And even if coaches do deluge stars with texts, as any parent of teenagers knows, they are experts at ignoring them when it's convenient. Suppose a recruit tells North Carolina coach Roy Williams that he didn't reply because his battery died or he wasn't getting any bars on his phone; Williams will know that the kid is going to Duke.

Enforcing the limits on contact was becoming an unwinnable fight, anyway. "I think it's just too hard to keep track of," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said last week. "If you can't enforce it, then you probably ought to just go ahead and make it legal. I think that's kind of what happened with Prohibition."

So far at least, it seems that coaches haven't gotten drunk on their new freedom. And, with its promise of transparency, the new system is growing on me. Text to coaches: GR8 job so far. Sry 4 doubting u. Now pls don't skru this up.

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