The pressures on college athletics programs for increased accountability, transparency, and fairness ensure that the compliance officer—liaising with many departments and communities on campus—is one of the most vital roles in an athletic department. NAAC—the National Association for Athletics Compliance—is the industry organization for compliance professionals and its mission is to “foster the highest possible professional and ethical standards…[and] improve the overall understanding and effectiveness of the athletics compliance profession, while upholding the ideals of higher education.”
Compliance officers nationwide are working diligently to implement new reforms and educate staff and student-athletes about the potential for violations and infractions. Ryan Matthews—Winthrop’s Managing Editor—sat down recently with six NAAC members: Josh White, (NAAC’s First Vice President) Sr. Associate Athletic Director at the University of Nebraska Omaha Athletics; Daniel Bartholomae, (NAAC’s Second Vice President) Associate Athletic Director For Compliance and Sports Services at the University of Pittsburgh; Tricia Turley Brandenburg, (NAAC’s Third Vice President) Deputy Director of Athletics for Internal Operations at Towson University; Ikechi Ukaegbu, Associate AD for Compliance at Virginia Commonwealth University; Kristine Fowler, Associate Athletic Director for Compliance at Indiana University; and Matt Burgemeister, Assistant Commissioner – Compliance & Governance at the Atlantic Coast Conference to discuss complex compliance scenarios, issues that aren’t discussed often enough, and new efficiencies that are changing the role of compliance for the better.
Reporting on compliance often feels very issues-based or heavy on specific violations—is there another side that should get more reporting (i.e. risk management for example)?
That is a good point. The media tends to focus on enforcement cases when talking about compliance. There are many layers to the compliance profession and central to the discussion should be the teacher/educator role. Being an educator is one of the biggest parts to being an effective compliance professional and that is one of the things I look at during the hiring process. Often overlooked by the media, taking the rules and translating them to student-athletes, coaches and staff is critical to the job. While compliance professionals have a good deal of knowledge on NCAA rules, they also are very knowledgeable about conference and national governance, and as you say, risk management. This is something that is gaining traction in the media and my hope is that compliance professionals are celebrated for this as time goes on.
I agree that the media focuses on enforcement related issues and then relates that specifically to the “compliance profession.” But enforcement is a national initiative and compliance professionals rarely are centrally involved in the passing of the rules being enforced. It would be neat to focus on the careers of some of our more distinguished and experienced professionals, and learn about the initiatives they started on campus and some of the creative ways they have solved what could have been significant problems on campus. I think it would be great to hear what compliance folks think about the stipend issue, and some of the rules that they work with every day. I also think some type of focus on the positives that come out of the NCAA Student Assistance Fund is lacking.
I think people would be surprised to learn how often compliance staff are involved with finding solutions for coaches and staff within their department by either trying to achieve the same goal through another means or filing a waiver given extraordinary circumstances. The best compliance people are focused on finding solutions not just on saying no. Compliance professionals also work with all parts of the department and campus community. There are not many people in athletics who talk to the head basketball coach, faculty, the President’s Office, alumni relations, marketing, tickets and media relations all in the same day.
The rules education programs at different institutions should get more reporting. Most Compliance offices, including ours at VCU provide extensive rules education to coaches, student-athletes, administrative staff, and boosters regarding the rules and regulations that could jeopardize the eligibility of student-athletes or affect the institution in general. As a Compliance Administrator, I educate using real examples with real consequences because it is more effective than simply regurgitating the rules.
There is always another side to the story even with the issues-based or violation-based stories that are more prevalent in the media. Certainly there is so much activity going on in an athletic department and specifically within a compliance office that there are many other sides that could get reported. Again, I would reference that when compliance offices are doing their best work they often go unnoticed because they are keeping their institutions out of the headline news. When you look at an athletic department’s operations there is not one area that doesn’t get touched by compliance in one way or another. Compliance is the backbone of an athletic department but the general public doesn’t realize that because for the most part the work is done behind the scenes so that the fundraising, ticket sales, and competitions can all happen without anyone knowing any differently.
Fortunately for those of us who work in compliance, violations are a relatively small portion of the overall workload. Not to downplay their significance, but compliance is much more than investigations and enforcement. Effective compliance administrators must develop cooperative relationships with coaches and other athletics administrators, and also represent the athletics department across campus and in the community. Compliance personnel are also involved in many areas that directly affect student-athlete well-being and are typically involved in, if not leading, conversations about proposed rules and other topics affecting the future of college athletics.
What are some new efficiencies that allow you to spend more of your time educating coaches and athletes about compliance?
Over the past 20 years, technology has definitely played a big part in the evolution of the compliance profession. Our compliance department has definitely become more efficient because of the ability to educate and monitor through electronic means. The rise of technology in the profession has contributed to quicker, easier access to rules and interpretations. Coaches are working 24/7 and because of technology compliance staffs are a click away from an answer and that has definitely changed the way business is done. I would say when evaluating how efficient it has made departments, one has to look at the people running the office. It boils down to personality as anyone can get bogged down in the details, and I encourage people in compliance to think big picture and focus on culture and relationships as much as anything.
Technology has helped … it is easier to maintain and audit records and certainly smart phones allow us to access legislative information and disseminate it quickly at any hour to our coaches out on the road. More resources have been put into compliance by some very forward thinking athletic directors and (at least for some of us), that has allowed us to broaden our focus and start to think big picture. I think the increase in compliance staffing is going to profoundly effect this profession in the next 3-5 years, as long as we are up for the challenge and make use of the additional resources appropriately.
The advent of technology related to compliance has allowed compliance administrators to spend less time monitoring and creating systems to monitor by being more efficient, which results in more time for rules education.
Social Media outlets and Compliance Monitoring software programs such ARMS Software has allowed me to spend more time educating coaches and student student-athletes. The ability to reach so many coaches or student-athletes at one time through a social media outlet such as Facebook or Twitter or send a mass text message through a Compliance Monitoring Software has allowed me to provide a lot more compliance rules education. NCAA Compliance is cyclical. Issues arise at the same time each year; the same questions are asked almost to the day, year in and year out. Being able to send out quick educational reminders to different groups of people is great.
There are several computer software companies that have found their niche in athletics and specifically athletic compliance. Being able to take away the “man hours” that compliance staffs spend on the monitoring activities helps to swing the pendulum so that more time can be spent building relationships with coaches and student-athletes and educating them on the ever-changing rules.
At the conference office, we don’t spend a lot of time directly educating coaches or student-athletes, but technology has certainly helped streamline some of our work so that we can focus on efforts that support institutional and conference staff members. For example, we have saved days in our preparation for conference meetings by transitioning from hard copies to electronic copies of meeting materials. And many of our educational materials, processes and paperwork are now completed electronically. There are probably still opportunities for improvement, and the prospect of continuing NCAA reform may further allow compliance administrators to focus on more significant issues.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in a career in compliance?
That is an interesting question. I think there are a couple of keys to becoming successful in compliance and college athletics as a whole. The first is to be patient. If someone has talent, works hard and develops good relationships they will have a very productive career. Another key is finding mentors who can help along the way. This is something that happened almost organically for me along the way and now I am much more deliberate about staying in touch with colleagues and mentors. I make time each week to reach out to many people in the business whom I trust and respect. I would also encourage people to get involved in a professional organization, whether it is local or national. One of the best things that has happened in my career has been my involvement in NAAC. The relationships that I have formed in NAAC have helped me personally and professionally. The exposure to talented individuals has been invaluable in my time running a compliance department on campus.
Find a mentor who is willing to give you their time. There is so much we can learn from those individuals with great experiences in this business. Do not stress out about money, or the next job … learn what you can from what you are doing today, and trust that hard work and productive experiences (whether negative or positive) will propel you to where you need to be. Sometimes the right fit is better than the glamorous position. I am very fortunate to have been at the same school for 12 years where I have learned from some of the best coaches and staff in the business, and in turn they have invested in me professionally.
I also hear a lot of younger professionals talking about “getting out” of compliance. I find that discouraging. I can’t imagine any Athletic Director thinks they are “out” of compliance, nor should any senior level executive within the department. Focus on the positive experiences and exposure the compliance profession can bring someone eager to move up in this business and stay in tune with the issues.
Finally, join an organized network of compliance professionals (like NAAC). Without exposure to so many outstanding professionals in your industry, it becomes difficult to become a better professional and improve your own operation on campus.
You need to have a thick skin to work in compliance as you’re not always giving the answers people want to hear, but you also need to be willing to work on building relationships. Coaches and other administrators need to feel like you’re on the same team and willing to work towards a common goal and not just the person saying no all the time.
The public perception is that Compliance Administrators are the police officers of the athletic department. It does not have to be this way. The advice that I would give to a young person interested in a career in compliance is that it starts with trust. Make sure you develop relationships and garner trust—with coaches, staff, and student-athletes—by talking to them about their families, sport, and other relevant topics just as much as you talk to them about compliance issues. Without a great amount of trust, it is difficult for all parties to work together in resolving compliance issues.
If someone is interested in a career in athletic compliance it can serve them well to start getting experience early; volunteer, get an internship, serve as graduate assistant, etc. I always encourage young professional to become “student members” of several professional organization associated with the field. Additionally, the NAAC (National Association for Athletics Compliance) Education Certification Program is also a great way for young professionals to get exposed to the a broad foundation of compliance information and receive education certification to show future employers that they are not only interested but invested in having a career in compliance.
Like most areas of college athletics, many compliance professionals initially get started with a graduate assistant, student assistant or volunteer position. This provides a great entry point and an opportunity to learn the basics of the profession. It can also provide a new professional with one or more mentors who can share their experience and support the development of a new compliance professional. I would also recommend formal learning opportunities like the NCAA regional seminar and the NAAC certification program, not only for the knowledge they provide, but also as an opportunity to connect with other new compliance professionals and additional mentors. Lastly, I would encourage aspiring compliance professionals to be prepared to think critically about issues impacting college athletics and higher education generally.