Lost in interpretation: Accountable compliance officers wanted

by | CBSSports.com
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Fourth in a series.

Forget whatever preconceived notion you might have about compliance officers working on campuses around the country.

They're not card-carrying members of the No Fun League. They're not locked in the basement of the athletic department, blissfully ignoring what's happening on- and off-campus. They are definitely not paid extravagantly.

There are plenty of myths about the compliance "industry" in NCAA athletics and rightfully so. For years, compliance departments worked behind the scenes, toiling to protect their universities and, well, comply with NCAA rules. Even if a school committed a major violation, it's unlikely anyone would know who might have been asleep at the wheel or that someone would lose their job.

Five-Part Series: Cheating
Part I -- Dodd: Hard to win without cheating
Part II -- McMurphy: Teams that cheat the most
Part III -- McMurphy: Major equals minor consequences
Part IV -- Fischer: Accountable compliance officers needed
Part V -- July 15: What we have learned

Now though, in an age of Twitter, Facebook and an interest in NCAA violations unlike anything before, compliance departments are finally having a light cast on what they do -- the good and the bad.

In Part IV CBSSports.com's series on cheating in college football, we examine the people on the front lines, the pressures of having to worry about, well, everything, why the NCAA has turned compliance into less of a carrot and more of a stick to punish departments and what, if anything, schools and the NCAA are doing to fix things.

"I think our compliance staff does a great job in recent years of making sure we know what to do," said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, during an interview with ESPN's SportsCenter.

Barkley, the poster boy for the program that has been the poster child for lack of institutional control in the last decade, is talking about a staff that was somewhat non-existent several years ago. The statement makes more than one person smile at the National Association for Athletics Compliance convention. A compliance question on SportsCenter? Almost unfathomable just five years ago.

"Things aren't working at the moment," one SEC compliance officer said. "But more student-athletes are asking questions now, and that's encouraging."

When it comes to knowing what's in the extremely thick NCAA manual, it's often left up to the handful of people in athletics whose job it is to read bylaw interpretation after interpretation and attend conferences such as the one in Orlando to pick up the latest information.

The vast majority of the people who staff compliance offices across the country hold a law degree so they enter the field with a good understanding of what's required. A good number are former student-athletes who want to maintain their connection to athletics. Most light up when they get the chance to talk about helping students and seeing them grow.

Some see a position in compliance as a chance to move up the career ladder, but even that line of thinking is changing recently with a move toward taking the compliance office out of the athletic department.

"One of Ohio State's challenges if they move their compliance office to a central university office is going to be attracting top talent for that office," said John Infante, assistant director of compliance at Colorado State and author of the NCAA-hosted Bylaw Blog. "Especially if the perception or reality is that those people aren't going to be next in line for some senior associate or associate AD positions."

Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne emails 90,000 boosters about rule-following in the wake of the scandal at Ohio State. (US Presswire)  
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne emails 90,000 boosters about rule-following in the wake of the scandal at Ohio State. (US Presswire)  
For those like Infante, discussing the industry with the media is a trend that has caught on only recently. He's part of a recent push from the NCAA, school compliance offices and others to be more open and visible to the general public. His blog is hosted on the NCAA website and is aimed at demystifying the rules and regulations for the public and media. Several athletic departments have compliance Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.

It's all part of what the NCAA stresses, that compliance is a "shared responsibility" between student-athletes, boosters, fans, coaches, administrators and, of course, the compliance offices.

Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne made news in early June when he emailed nearly 90,000 Wildcat supporters the phone numbers and email addresses of his compliance department and urged them to . Byrne wrote that the situation at Ohio State was a reminder to "our fan base and internally on the absolute need to pay attention to the rules every day."

As detailed in this series on CBSSports.com, Stanford is unique in that the school has been one of a few major programs that has not committed a major violation in football. Karen Peters, associate athletic director at the University of Portland, worked in Palo Alto for almost 10 years and believes the key to preventing violations is the culture at schools, not just rules.

"It starts from the top down," she said. "Our athletic director at Stanford, Ted Leland, took [compliance] very seriously. It's something he talked about on a proactive basis with the coaches, with the staff, at meetings. It wasn't just the compliance staff trying to deal with things."

Often times however, it is the responsibility of the staff to be the first line of defense against major violations. According to NCAA statistics, in the last 11 years there have been 184 major infractions cases and 52 percent of them have been initiated by either the school or the school and enforcement staff together. While self-reporting violations is viewed positively by the Committee on Infractions and the national office, it often puts schools between a rock and a hard place.

"The problem is by reporting violations, you self-impose penalties, then possibly receive more from the conference office and more still from the NCAA," one compliance director said. "You are in essence getting punished for doing your job."

When NCAA Vice President for Enforcement Julie Roe Lach took questions from compliance directors in Orlando last month, one person told her that they were discussing something with a senior enforcement staff member and was told that something wasn't a violation but could be used against them at a later date. They were understandably upset at this standard.

"That's troublesome to me," Roe Lach said. "But if we do learn something during a case, it may not be a violation but it might be relevant to an institutional control issue or monitoring issue."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't apparently. In a 12-month period starting in April 2010, there were 14 major infractions cases in Division I with nine citing a school for either a failure to monitor or lack of institutional control, the two most serious things a school can be charged with.

Whenever a school begins the infractions process, one of the things you'll often hear from administrators is that they did a good job (Ohio State) or that they are immediately adding staff (USC) as a way to mitigate possible sanctions by proving they're making changes to the way things are done.

Even so, taking corrective actions before reaching the Committee on Infractions has always been received as a mixed message. After all, it's possible the school wouldn't be in front of the committee had those policies and people been in place beforehand.

"Is the point of this to punish wrongdoers or is it to make sure as many people as possible are doing things the right way?" Infante said. "If you create a process that's all about punishing people and you don't have a process that rewards people for making changes, what's the incentive for schools to come forward and self-report or self-impose penalties? You might as well try and roll the dice."

Talk to enough coaches and staff members and you realize there's a fine line everyone in compliance has to walk between being the policemen and being there to help. Some head coaches are inquisitive of what they can and cannot do while others have an often adversarial relationship with those down the hall. The give-and-take between multiple people is all part of the daily grind for the people charged with keeping their school out of trouble.

"Particularly on a national level, there's not necessarily a carrot out there for anyone. The way I tried to approach it when it was part of my day-to-day life was to make compliance a service office," Peters said. "For me, that's a big way of earning the coaches' trust, making them see that you're on their side and trying to help them do their job. When you go through investigations though, it can be a delicate balance of being the cop and the partner."

By all indications, the NCAA is looking for compliance to be more of the cop and less of a partner. According to Chuck Smrt, a Kansas City-based consultant who runs The Compliance Group, reporting secondary violations, depending on the number and scope, might actually be a net positive if a school commits a major violation.

"If you're in a major infractions case and the NCAA goes through to see how many times you self-reported in the past three or four years and there's two [secondary violations], I would think they've got an issue," Smrt said. "I think what the NCAA has to do is look at all your secondary cases over the past five years. Are they increasing or decreasing?"

Sometimes it's even the schools themselves that end up preventing compliance as part of calculating the risk-reward of monitoring for rules violations. New technology has been lauded as one solution for schools to help limit violations but it often comes at a price.

FieldLevel is one of about 10 companies with a monitoring product on the market and runs schools around $7,000 for a football staff for an entire year. Although the cost attached to the system is something some budgets, especially at smaller schools, can't accommodate, it's also responsible for USC committing zero impermissible phone calls since switching to the system. As a result, athletics directors have to weigh spending some money on compliance now in exchange for preventing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of legal fees later.

"It's been received really well but there are schools that ask if it's worth the cost," FieldLevel CEO Brenton Sullivan said. "We have to educate them and say 10 years ago or 20 years ago, you weren't dealing with these kinds of communication platforms. It's a new ballgame. When we're able to get in front them and walk them through a demo, it's a pretty powerful thing for them to say I get it."

In the face of a changing environment, what other steps can compliance departments or, the NCAA itself, do to help?

Ohio State for one, is considering hiring private investigators to help with monitoring athletes. Alabama is working closely with agents to combat illegal benefits. Oregon is looking to add someone to their staff with extensive investigative experience. USC consulted with a former FBI director. Several others are turning to solutions such as FieldLevel.

Adding people, it seems, is the most common thing, as dozens of compliance director job postings go up every month. Some in the field point say simply adding a body or two isn't enough. Having 10 people in the compliance department may necessary in some cases but that is still avoiding a larger issue.

"I think the industry needs a better way to assess itself beyond how many violations did you report or did you have a major infractions case, how many people do you have or what software package did you buy," Infante said. "There has to be a way for us to benchmark who's actually doing good work."

The National Association for Athletics Compliance has been working with the NCAA to establish reasonable standards in the field but so far they have been limited in scope. Many agree that it's a step in the right direction but there's still plenty that needs to be done.

"I'd like for the NCAA to create a compliance service component into what they do," one administrator said. "There's no training, there's no best practices for compliance, there's no standards, there's no safe harbors."

Recent proposals aimed at deregulating many of the bylaws concerned with recruiting contacts have been applauded by many as something that will allow for more time to monitor athletes on and off-campus. At the end of the day however, it might not matter what fancy monitoring system you install or how many staffers are on the look out.

"You're always one pissed off kid, one pissed off booster from bringing the whole house down," one compliance director said.

Something everyone is very much aware of.

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