Through the Eyes of Compliance: Q & A with Santa Clara’s Associate Athletic Director

The following article was written by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.

During my 3L year of law school, I had an externship with Jacksonville University’s Athletic Compliance office. I had no idea what to expect coming in. During my collegiate basketball career, I never paid attention to the compliance directors, just like most of the other athletes. I remember signing various documents during the annual compliance meeting, but it was something I didn’t put a lot of effort in understanding. However, during my externship, I realized just how detail oriented the NCAA rules manual is, and how there is a heavy burden that rests upon the compliance directors at the universities.

For this article, I interviewed Jeffrey Mitchell. Jeff is the Associate Athletic Director at Santa Clara University, and serves as the sport supervisor for the Broncos’ men’s basketball and baseball program. Further, Jeff coordinates the University’s NCAA compliance program. Jeff attended law school at the University of Mississippi, from which he earned a Juris Doctorate in December of 2005. Mitchell is the primary contact for all NCAA related business including legal affairs and institutional control matters. He is also an award-winning author, writes a column published quarterly in SCU’s Bronco Sports Magazine and has been a reference for the LA Times on NCAA compliance issues.

While many fans see compliance related issues from the athlete or the NCAA’s perspective, this article’s purpose is to shed light on the University’s perspective with regards to compliance issues. Jeff is a perfect interviewee for this topic because of his extensive knowledge and experience.

Q: In general, what are your biggest concerns on a daily basis as a compliance director?

A:  I’ll address my concerns from the standpoint of an athletics administrator.  On a daily basis, I want to do my part to ensure that we, as an administration, are serving our coaches and student-athletes by providing the necessary resources for them to be successful.  Are we providing a good collegiate experience for our student-athletes?  Are we treating them fairly? Are we providing sufficient staffing support, competent coaching, and safe facilities?  Certainly, a significant focus of an athletics administrator is geared to NCAA compliance.  In that regard, my first priority is to ensure that the status of our students as amateur athletes is constantly being protected. 

Q: I remember my compliance meetings in college. Like most of the other athletes, I didn’t pay attention. What can you do to try and help athletes understand the NCAA rules as applied to them?

A: I make it real for them.  I give them real examples with real consequences.  For example, we walk through the scenario of a student-athlete receiving an extra benefit in the form of an impermissible $100 handshake and the resulting eligibility concerns associated with that violation.  Our student-athletes know that their participation in intercollegiate athletics is a privilege, and they know that such participation can be jeopardized by a mistake or series of mistakes.  The goal is to educate them and to ensure them that my job, in part, is to help protect their status as an amateur.  I believe strongly that the more trust our student-athletes have in our coaches and administrators, the more respect is given to compliance standards.

Q: How do you believe law school has helped you with regards to your compliance position?

A:  As an athletics administrator, I appreciate that I am a law school graduate. I am a better prepared administrator because I learned a unique way of thinking and communicating through legal education.  In tandem with my background in business management, I take advantage of my law school experience to be a more effective leader.  Specific to compliance efforts, when filing waivers, I credit my success to skills honed in legal research and writing classes.  When working with our General Counsel’s Office, I am grateful for having been educated about contracts and civil rights law. 

Q: Do you feel as if coaches are more receptive to working with you, or do you feel as if coaches view you as a nuisance?

A:  It starts with trust.  I try to spend more time talking to coaches about their families, their sport, or other relevant topics than I spend talking to them about compliance.  To be sure, compliance issues and questions arise constantly, and I have a steady stream of coaches who visit with me every day.  In addition to overseeing our compliance program for 18 Division I athletic programs, I directly supervise the day-to-day operations of our men’s basketball and baseball programs.  Without a high level of trust between coaches and me, no productive work gets accomplished. With a high level of trust, when we do have a compliance issue, the resolution is reached amicably and respectfully. 

Q: From the eyes of compliance, what are the positives and negatives to working at a high major university compared to a mid-major?

A: This is a matter of attitude.  The good news is that the vast majority of rules for Division I are consistent.  Rules do vary by sport, and football has its different regulations in FBS and FCS divisions; but compliance issues at the mid-major level are, for the most part, the same as the issues at the high major level.  The principle of integrity is as significant at the mid-major level as it is at the high major level. The media may not always accurately portray that, and to be fair, heightened scrutiny in football at BCS level institutions leads to different organizational efforts when it comes to compliance.  Staffing is probably the most oft cited negative.  The level of staffing in compliance is a University decision that varies from level to level, and high major universities tend to employ more administrators in compliance than mid-major universities. 

Q: What policies are in place in order to monitor Santa Clara’s athletes on social media websites?

A:  At Santa Clara, we encourage our students to participate in social networking.  We know who is active on Facebook and Twitter, and we encourage our students to promote the University and Santa Clara athletics through these sites.  We understand that our student-athletes communicate with friends this way, and to reference an earlier statement, our student-athletes are well aware of the privilege that they have as members of an intercollegiate athletics team.  They know that alumni, fans, and future employers may very well be watching them through social media.  Rather than fear social media, we embrace it, and we are constantly educating our student-athletes to take advantage of networking opportunities in a healthy and productive manner.

To go along with the great insight provided above, Santa Clara has a compliance page on their athletic website which has information on various NCAA and University rules. There is information provided for prospective student-athletes; current student-athletes; and information for agents as well. Further, this compliance page, in bold letters, states, “ALWAYS ASK BEFORE YOU ACT!”