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Posted on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

Michigan athletic department describes its 'catfishing' of student athletes

By Pete Cunningham

The dangers of being lured into an online relationship with someone after being contacted on social media have been front and center in the news since it was revealed that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o supposed girlfriend was fake.

The Michigan athletic department has been preparing its athletes for similar dangers since 2011 according to athletic director Dave Brandon.

Speaking at the Distinguished Global Leaders forum at the University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation on Friday, Michigan athletic director Brandon talked about the department's use of the company 180 Communications Inc. to educate athletes on the dangers of social media.

dave-brandon-people-to watch.jpg

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. file photo

According to Tweets from Kyle Rowland, a writer for -- a website that covers Ohio State athletics -- Brandon revealed to the forum that Michigan had "catfished" several athletes.

Associate athletic director David Ablauf explained that "catfishing," commonly used to describe creating and maintaining a relationship through a fake persona via social media, isn't an accurate way to describe what the department had done.

According to Ablauf, the athletic department had 180 Communications give a presentation to the men's and women's basketball teams and the football team in the fall of 2011. A female employee of 180 Communications -- described by Brandon and Michigan football coach Brady Hoke as attractive -- had friended several of the athletes on Facebook and followed them on Twitter in the weeks before the presentation to gain access to their public posts.

Ablauf said the employee of 180 Communications then gathered several of the posts, some of which were directed to her, to show how easily someone could access their information and use it against them.

"She showed them things that could be misconstrued that weren’t appropriate for public consumption," Ablauf said. "It was a very powerful message of how to use media and social media."

Ablauf said the 180 Communications Inc. employee did not contact the athletes and bait them into saying anything, which is being widely reported. He said her interaction with the athletes was limited to making a friend request or following them and gathered what was public from there.

"She didn’t communicate or maintain a relationship. She asked to be liked or followed," Ablauf said. "I think people jumped to that conclusion because that's what's in the news right now with the Te'o thing and that’s inaccurate."

Ablauf said the department expanded the presentation to include every Michigan sports team in 2012 in order to get out a message about personal branding, interaction with the media and the dangers of social media.

"What we’re tryng to do at Michigan is not teach them just about their four years at Michigan. Future employers look at what they post on Facebook and Twitter," Ablauf said. "You have a lifetime to build a reputation and in a poor tweet or post that can really hurt what you've worked for and employers can access that very easily."

Pete Cunningham covers sports for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.



Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 12:57 a.m.

I'm really starting to not like Brandon. Rumor has it that he partially owns Bank of Ann Arbor, not to mention he has a heavy foot in DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, Domino's pizza, Burger King, and more. How much work can this guy actually do? And how much money does he really need?

Macabre Sunset

Sat, Feb 2, 2013 : 6:57 p.m.

This wasn't catfishing, at least as how it's defined in the Te'o case. More like haddocking. Though if the players were kept on the proverbial hook more than 48 hours, it might have graduated into aggravated guppying. Pete, you're starting to head across that line again - the one between reporting on a story and becoming the story. You do that a lot.

Pete Cunningham

Mon, Feb 4, 2013 : 5:07 a.m.

Thanks for the explanation. Always a pleasure.

Macabre Sunset

Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 12:47 p.m.

In terms of this story, using the word "catfishing" in the headline. I know it originally came from the OSU blogger, but what both he (and you, by repeating it) did was insert your judgment, your accusation, into the headline. The story itself is valid in that Hoke is giving these kids a life lesson. But the term itself is loaded, especially lately given the Te'o story, and it was not what Hoke was doing at all. That's inserting opinion. Then, recently, there was the Harbaugh story where you had a comment (you later passed it off as a joke) that you could imagine Harbaugh pulling a Lomas Brown because he was pouting over not being named the starting quarterback at age 11. Given you're the one who reported on the story, it comes off as an opinion sideline - again, the focus being on a specific accusation (and only you know for certain whether it was meant entirely as a joke) coming from you. Your bio mentions you intentionally illegally voted in an election to prove a point, and faced legal action. Again, you relished being part of the story rather than reporting on it. I think, from the perspective of what a smaller daily newspaper would need (and I realize this is a few steps down from the old Ann Arbor News), what a sports reporter/editor should be is an ambassador to the community. Someone who, if he does his job properly, blends in completely. Your stories often scream out "look at Pete, look at Pete." (wasn't it you who was assigned to the nude thing at the Art Fair and made it a nude Pete story)? " You build community by focusing the attention on the local athletes. In terms of more "serious" reporting, like the Hoke social media story, just let those stories tell themselves rather than repeating the judgment.

Pete Cunningham

Sat, Feb 2, 2013 : 8:41 p.m.

Please explain, I don't understand how I am part of this story in any way. If you'd rather do so in an email, my information is above. Thanks.


Sat, Feb 2, 2013 : 8:40 p.m.

Nope! Carping!

Nicholas Urfe

Sat, Feb 2, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

Catfishing... Is that like hooking without consummation?


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 9:44 p.m.

This is all so childish and child like. I've seen this same drama on forum boards for years. Posters faking their own deaths and claiming deaths of family members etc etc. Mostly the claimants are liars seeking attention before or after they have been caught lying. It's a bit insulting it's being discussed as some serious issue.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 7:35 p.m.

Surely, the Manti Te'o incident would make all student athletes wiser. In the Manti case, the truth is slowly being revealed. I wouldn't expect someone like Denard to revert to something like an on-line dating service.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 9:46 p.m.

I bet Manti is lying and this so called dude that perpetrated the scam is a paid liar. Manti claimed to have some hot chick to be cool, then claimed she died to get attention, then got busted lying his ass off and this new dude thats surfaced is the cover. My 13 year old could come up with better scams.

Pete Cunningham

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 9:06 p.m.

I wouldn't be so quick to label on-line dating or the initiation of a relationship through social media as methods used only for by the desperate and/or unpopular. It's been well documented that the "couple de jour" of college football, Katherine Webb and AJ McCarron, first "met" on Twitter.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 6:47 p.m.

if the conclusion of the reporter and editor is that there was no "catfishing" by U-M, it is spectacularly irresponsible to use the word in the headline


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 8:36 p.m.

I agree with Bonsai... There is no way the Michigan athletic department "Catfished" anyone, in any sense of the word. The headline is extremely misleading, just plain incorrect.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 7:56 p.m.

"said to be used"? by someone tweeting? from Ohio, no less? if brandon were quoted using the term in the article, i might believe that the word choice in the headline was something other than an attempt at search engine optimization

Pete Cunningham

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 6:56 p.m.

The term was said to be used by Brandon during his speech. What he and David Ablauf described is not the "traditional" form of the term (yes, like it or not, there is a traditional form of catfishing now), but it is what was used. This is why the quotes are used in the headline.