Did Michigan ‘catfish’ its own players?

The next Manti Te’o scandal isn’t going to happen at the University of Michigan.

At least, not if athletic director Dave Brandon has anything to do with it.

Speaking in Toledo on Friday morning, Brandon talked about a program used by the Michigan athletic department to demonstrate the potential pitfalls of social media. The term “catfishing”, made famous by the Te’o situation, refers to taking the online persona of an attractive woman in order to lure gullible men into what they think are serious relationships, but Michigan used a similar technique for different purposes.

The woman they hired, whom football coach Brady Hoke described as “hot”, friended student-athletes on Facebook and followed them on Twitter in order to check what they were posting for the world to see.

Associate athletic director Dave Ablauf stressed that, while the female employee did interact with the athletes, it wasn’t done with the idea of ensnaring them.

“If you look up the definition of catfishing, you’ll see that’s not what we did,” Ablauf said Friday afternoon. “We didn’t try to start any romantic relationships. She was going through their accounts, just like anyone else can do, and seeing if there was stuff that was inappropriate.”

Michigan’s athletic department has a contract with a media consulting company 180 Communications Inc., based in Tallahassee, Fla., to instruct student athletes on the dangers of social media. Ablauf said that the female employee who befriended the athletes was a television reporter who works for the company, and that she was not chosen because of her looks. A male employee was used to check the accounts of women’s basketball players, but Ablauf said that employees of both sexes were involved with the process for each team.

Brandon did not name any players involved and did not mention any disciplinary action during his speech in Toledo, but he did say the Facebook comments made to the female employee were ‘wholly inappropriate’, according to ElevenWarriors.com.

The players were presented with any problematic material in front of their teammates in a meeting that included a surprise appearance by the woman with whom they had been interacting — something that left some players “speechless.”

The presentations were first done in 2011 with the football team and both men’s and women’s basketball teams, but this past fall, all 900 student athletes took part, Ablauf said.

Michigan football coach Brady Hoke addressed the social media issue in January while speaking to a group of high school football coaches.

“Before he (Brandon) came in, we gave him 20 Facebook accounts of guys on our team,” said Hoke, according to a report in MLive.com. “He had his assistant — she tried to talk to our guys. ‘Hey, what are ya doin’?’ Whatever it might be.

“Well, two months later we’re in a team meeting and we’re on the topic of what you put out there in the cyber universe … you should have seen 115 guys when that young lady — she was hot, now; a very, very nice looking young lady — when she walked into that meeting room, and the guys looking at each other.”

Although money doesn’t seem to have been Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s motive for convincing Te’o that he was really Lennay Kekua, the scam is often used to get the victim to provide cash or other valuable presents to his mythical girlfriend.

While Te’o’s story got national headlines because of the way it was used to hype his Heisman Trophy campaign, only to then turn out to be based entirely on lies, the problem is common with athletes. Four Washington Redskins players were duped by a different online persona during the football season, and a quick look on Twitter will show you that many athletes are happy to follow accounts based just on a skimpy wardrobe and a flirty bio.

Brandon’s trick might have embarrassed the athletes who were caught posting inappropriate material or falling for the wrong online flirtations, but if it keeps them from being humiliated on a national basis, he’ll feel that the unusual move paid off.