How Competent Are Compliance Officers? They’re About to Find Out

Grapevine, Tex. — The people charged with keeping watch over the nation’s biggest athletic departments are about to experience a new scrutiny of sorts themselves.

The National Association for Athletics Compliance is set to announce a new system for educating and certifying its members, who include more than 750 compliance officers across all three NCAA divisions.

Two of the group’s leaders are scheduled to outline the proposed changes for Division I-A athletic directors as they wrap up their annual meetings here on Tuesday, The Chronicle has learned. The new certification requirements, which Division I-A compliance officers could be asked to complete annually starting as soon as next August, are designed to promote the core competencies necessary to run a clean program.

“The most important thing right now in intercollegiate athletics is operational integrity,” Christian Spears, deputy director of athletics at Northern Illinois University and president of the compliance association, said in an interview here on Monday. “We want to give every compliance officer the tools they need to succeed.”

The idea is to help standardize the education of compliance officers, many of whom are lawyers by training but have never been evaluated on NCAA rules and procedures. “You don’t learn compliance in law school,” said Dan Bartholomae, an associate athletic director for compliance and sport services at the University of Pittsburgh and the third vice president of the compliance association.

The group’s move comes as NCAA leaders recently endorsed an overhaul of the association’s enforcement process that includes stricter penalties for people and programs that step outside the lines. By next August, the NCAA is also expected to have a leaner rulebook that places a greater emphasis on campuses’ managing their own affairs. Those changes could put an added burden on compliance staffs at a time when they’re already pinched.

Those who complete the compliance-certification program—which is expected to cover about 10 different NCAA bylaws and take around three hours to finish online—will receive “continuing compliance education” credits, similar to the continuing-legal-education credits that lawyers must earn. Those compliance credits, combined with attendance at the annual National Association for Athletics Compliance meeting or NCAA regional rules seminars, will keep compliance officers in good standing.

The certification system, which will eventually be rolled out to all Division I and II compliance officers, will give programs an added layer of protection in NCAA infractions cases, Spears and Bartholomae said. As part of the training, compliance officers will have to demonstrate an understanding of the NCAA’s principle of institutional control and responsibility.

“This will help institutions defend themselves, which is what AD’s and presidents want,” Spears said. “They want to show the NCAA that they’re doing everything they can to prevent problems.”

The program could also give smaller athletic departments a boost, as it will provide the same educational materials to all institutions. So it won’t matter, for example, that Ohio State and Northern Illinois have compliance staffs that differ in size, Spears said. They will be treated just the same.

The new certification system has already gained support from leaders of the Division I-A athletic directors’ association. And this week, top NCAA officials said they would endorse the program as well.

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