An inside look at athletics compliance services
It is the binding force that holds the UC Davis athletic community together. It is the bridge that connects student-athletes with the university at large. Its staff of just four members is responsible for ensuring that each of the university’s 23 different NCAA affiliated athletic programs are operating within the law. Its existence is often overlooked by those not intimately familiar with the inner workings of collegiate athletics, yet it plays one of the most vital roles in keeping UC Davis athletics functioning.
This elusive, under-the-radar industry is known as UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics Compliance Services. Its job, while not all that flashy, is to ensure that UC Davis athletics complies with the pages upon pages of rules and regulations set forth by the NCAA, the university and all of the subsequent levels of governing bodies. In doing so, Compliance Services must work alongside the university’s student-athletes, coaches and staff to ensure that these many rules and guidelines are being met.
As a member of the NCAA, UC Davis has agreed to follow and uphold all of the institution’s rules and can face punishment if these rules are violated. But according to Assistant Director of Compliance Services Lydia Sandlin, NCAA bylaws are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the layers of policy that compliance directors must constantly be aware of.
“Not only do we have the NCAA rule manual,” Sandlin said. “We have UC Davis policies, we have federal and state laws that impact what we do. And then we have six or seven different sport conferences who each can have their own nuances, too.”
The policies that dictate the dos and don’ts of collegiate athletics are plentiful in number and sometimes complex in nature. In many respects, working in the compliance office has a similar feel to working for a law firm. Compliance directors act as lawyers and trial judges, studying the laws that govern collegiate athletics and seeking to find the law’s correct interpretation.
According to Assistant Director of Compliance Services Ryan Qualls, the compliance office regularly fields questions from student-athletes and coaches pertaining to any and all aspects of eligibility and athletics operations. When confronted with a question that the office does not immediately know the answer to, compliance must dig through the hefty rulebook to find and interpret the specific bylaw to provide the proper response.
To aid in this search, the NCAA has an enormous online database, known as the Legislative Services Database –– LSDBi for short –– that provides various interpretations, violations, case studies and educational columns for every rule. Sandlin says that this is one of many tools available to the staff to help guide compliance toward a proper interpretation when the exact answer is unclear.
There is a fair amount of research and attention to detail involved in the job. The ability of the compliance office to take words written in a rulebook and correctly apply them to multi-dimensional, real-life situations is paramount to keeping UC Davis athletics in good standing with the NCAA. Not many know the ins and outs of this process better than Associate Athletic Director of Compliance and Intercollegiate Services and senior women administrator Katherine Zedonis, a veteran of college athletics compliance with more than a decade of experience in the industry.
“In terms of interpretations, it really comes down to the fact pattern,” Zedonis said. “If someone comes in with a question, we have to almost be like detectives and try to pull up more information based on the nature of the question the coach has.”
This additional information could be pulled from established precedent or past case studies. A final answer cannot be given until compliance cross-references the many jurisdictions that UC Davis athletics falls under to ensure that the action taken is not in violation with any of these guidelines.
This is all complicated stuff, but in the eyes of Zedonis, the role of compliance stretches far beyond simply being available for questions and interpreting rules. There are, in fact, three overarching components to working in compliance.
Education is one, and this involves “demystifying” and sharing the rules with student-athletes and coaching staff so that each party is aware of the guidelines. The second is monitoring, or making sure that all parties are actively following these guidelines and that no violations are committed. The final component is enforcement, where, if there is in fact a rules violation, compliance services is responsible for self-reporting this violation to the NCAA.
For an office of just four people, it is impressive that compliance has been able to handle providing thorough educational, monitoring and enforcement services for over 20 different teams.
“We are a one-stop shop for everyone that is under our umbrella,” Qualls said, referring to how compliance is there for every step of each student’s journey, from recruit to college athlete.
Zedonis jumped in to explain that for mid-major programs, compliance offices are usually shorter staffed than that of larger, power five conference programs. The four UC Davis compliance directors thus are trained to become “generalists” out of necessity; they are able to navigate the entire rulebook and handle a wider range of issues than the typical compliance director with a larger staff. This allows student athletes to come to compliance for nearly all of their needs rather than going to multiple different campus offices.
The fact that each of the four compliance officers handle everything from admissions, to housing, to financial aid and more for each student athlete-plays a key role in how compliance manages to do its job effectively. By being involved from day one, compliance facilitates a familiarity and a level of comfort between it and the student-athletes, making its job much easier in the long run.
“It’s being a face,” Sandlin said, discussing how compliance likes to be as available as possible for the athletes if they have any questions or need any help. “For me, getting out of the office and seeing practices, especially going to games, that’s like a reward. Because you do all this work, you make sure there’s a lot of eligibility points to hit and then you’re able to go to the games, and you’re like this is why we do what we do.”
Qualls expanded on this point, emphasizing the important role of human interaction involved in the compliance industry, where the focus is less on being “the bad guy” and more on providing a customer service-type experience for the entire athletics department. Qualls claims that each compliance director’s personal background and set of experiences has allowed this office to successfully build positive relationships with the student-athletes it serves.
“[Senior Director of Compliance and Intercollegiate Services Tracy Cumming] has been here for a very long time, so obviously she’s a familiar face,” Qualls said. “[Zedonis] is a former student-athlete, [Sandlin] and I went to Davis, so student-athletes are real comfortable with us because we have been there before. We know the Davis experience and what they’re going through […] I think that makes our shop really special.”
Having a former student-athlete and two UC Davis alumni on staff has certainly allowed the compliance office to better relate to the large network of UC Davis student-athletes. But even more importantly, the approachability and openness of the compliance directors has allowed the office to overcome the negative stigma that commonly surrounds the compliance industry on campuses across the nation.
“There’s a negative stigma around compliance being the police,” Qualls said. “We’re not the police. We’re here to monitor and enforce the rules, but we’re also here as more of customer service for student-athletes and coaches. Obviously everyone sees the big stories, like what’s going on in [college] basketball right now, and [people] think compliance are the guys that you want to run from. But, mainly we’re the guys that’s trying to protect the institution, protect the student athletes and make sure that they are eligible to compete.”
It is difficult to completely rid the compliance industry of the “policing” stereotype, especially in today’s college athletics seemingly plagued with scandal. For the UC Davis compliance office, however, the directors are finding that the best way to combat the conventional way of thinking is to work with passion and to develop enduring professional relationships with the student-athletes they serve.
Written by: Dominic Faria — firstname.lastname@example.org