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Strunk & White 1, Coaches 0: N.C.A.A. Bans Text-Messaging

The N.C.A.A. has banned text-messaging from coaches to recruits. Reactions to the regulation range from favorable to unfavorable to noncommittal and incoherent. (As noted by Sunday Morning Quarterback, Dan Hawkins has offered perhaps his most incomprehensible observation since remarking that "Gandhi didn't take a knee.")

Mark me down in the pro-ban column. Ivan Maisel says we can "score one for the Luddites," but, as I pointed out to Peter Bean during last Tuesday's "retro" edition of EDSBS Live, my efforts to get in touch with my inner Luddite do not involve a long-distance call.

In order to get in touch with my inner Luddite, I just get my outer Luddite to pick up a rotary telephone and have Lily Tomlin patch me through the switchboard.

My support of the ban should surprise no one . . . at least, no one who read what I wrote nearly three months ago:

[S]omeone needs to explain text-messaging to me. You have a cell phone. You want to carry on a conversation with someone in real time. Call them!

There are, of course, legitimate answers to this criticism. One such retort might be that it isn't always convenient to talk on a cell phone. For instance, a high school student cannot accept or place phone calls while in class.

If, however, high school students are receiving text messages while in class, they are engaging in no form of communication more sophisticated than passing notes using 21st-century technology. No coach purporting to recruit a student-athlete should be zipping off electronic missives to 17-year-olds during school hours.

While they're sitting in class, shouldn't high school students be thinking about the girl in the front row instead of reading inane one-liners from Ron Zook?

The real answer to my charge, though, is that coaches cannot simply pick up the phone and call youngsters they are recruiting, since N.C.A.A. rules limit their ability to call recruits. As noted by Brian Cook at MGoBlog, though, many text messages from coaches to recruits read "CALL ME NOW" and are sent during dead periods because recruits always have the option of initiating conversations.

That is precisely the point. Coaches are using text-messaging as an underhanded way of getting around their inability to place calls to recruits, thereby substantially defeating the purpose underlying such limitations. The N.C.A.A.'s reasonable attempts to keep the full-court press put on blue-chip prospects by hard-driving coaches from driving teenage athletes insane ought to apply to more novel methods of communication, just as they do to telephone calls, lest an innovative exception be permitted to overwhelm the sensible rule.

Over at A Sea of Blue, the reasonable point has been made that, while phone calls to recruits have been regulated, text-messaging has been summarily prohibited. He proposes a more measured response such as "assigning certain hours during the day for messaging or opt-in style rules that require a recruit's permission before text messaging him."

That represents a reasonable compromise and I would not grouse too loudly if such a scheme eventually were to be implemented, even though I question the claim made by many that this prohibition is the handiwork of out-of-touch old fuddy-duddies who fail to grasp the prevalence of newfangled technology. (I suspect Myles Brand and his sniveling minions are swapping messages on their BlackBerries on a regular basis.) Nevertheless, an outright ban still can be defended on several grounds.

O.K., I have now officially worked myself up into Southern lawyer mode.

Although they likely (and unfortunately) are here to stay as cultural staples rather than as devices (like first-aid kits or spare tires) useful only in times of uncommon need, cellular phones that perform multiple functions are, unlike what are now euphemistically called "land lines" (to the constant chagrin of those of us who remember when an "acoustic guitar" was just a guitar and an "analog watch" was just a watch), a novelty and a luxury. In saying so, I do not mean that cell phones are fads (although the various types of them have become the sorts of status symbols one is likely to find described in intricate detail in a Tom Wolfe novel); I simply mean that the ability to send text messages is new.

College recruiting as we know it today did not exist in a world without postal or telephone service, but it has existed for many years without the intrusion (or even availability) of text-messaging. Coaches were able to recruit well for years without it; by definition, that means it's a tool they simply do not need, no matter how much they like being able to use (and abuse) it.

Furthermore, although virtually no one is without telephone service, plenty of kids don't carry cell phones and many of those that do are not able to pay for large numbers of text messages. Recruits from financially strapped families simply are disadvantaged by the advent of this new technology and this development runs directly contrary to the highly desirable goal of giving young men who otherwise might not have gotten the opportunity for economic reasons the chance to attend college.

Finally, there is the superfluity of it all. Campus visits, meetings with coaches, and telephone calls all are regulated, rather than outlawed, because, however much salesmanship may be going on in such exercises, at least some information is being conveyed which will enable the young man being recruited and his family to make an intelligent choice in what was, for all of us, one of the most important decisions we ever had to make: where to attend college.

That's, you know, kind of an important decision.

The grammatically-challenged and spelling-deficient shorthand argot of text-messaging lacks any such useful content, so its inclusion in the recruiting process is far less justifiable than other methods of communication. The modern realities of intercollegiate athletics predispose us towards cynicism, but, if we allow ourselves to step just far enough back to see that we are still talking about young men making a critical life decision at a highly impressionable age, we will see that the N.C.A.A.'s ban on a particularly pernicious form of intrusive communication having little or no redeeming value represents a welcome note of worthwhile idealism injected into an oftentimes unseemly process.

Normally, when the N.C.A.A. outlaws anything other than a scourge (such as steroids) that is obviously harmful to the integrity of college sports and the well-being of student-athletes, the result is overkill in the name of something absolutely asinine. This latest action may be overkill, but it will protect prospective players from excessive behavior by overzealous coaches, potentially preserving these teenagers' scholastic, monetary, and mental health from invasive hard-sell techniques that interfere with, rather than enhance, their ability to make a life-altering choice prudently.

Call it Luddite paternalism if you like, but, when you're 17 years old and have more God-given talent than maturity earned through experience, a little old-fashioned fatherly guidance oftentimes is exactly what you need. If the coaches who would stand in loco parentis for the last leg of these young men's journey into manhood will not lead by example in demonstrating the requisite degree of self-discipline, it is entirely appropriate for a regulatory body that all too often focuses on marginal minutiae of the most ephemeral sort to lay down the law, unequivocally and emphatically, on a question directly affecting the very youths the N.C.A.A. is supposed to protect.

Go 'Dawgs!