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Walking a wall in compliance

Feb. 3, 2010

By Eric Toliver


I think back to my first month on the job in 1998 and receiving a NCAA "letter of inquiry," and not really knowing what it meant. One year later, I was sitting before the Committee on Infractions, thinking to myself, "If every coach in America could go through this, they'd never break a rule again...this job would be cake."

Today, halfway through my 16th year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- and 10th year in compliance -- I have been fortunate enough to not sit in front of the COI since then. I ask myself if that inauguration by fire several years ago made compliance life easier for "the compliance guy" here at UNLV. I wondered how my counterparts fared on their campuses; after calling my colleagues around the country, I was reassured that I am not alone.

Many compliance staffs can be seen by coaches and support staff as the greatest and worst -- all within a 24-hour day. We are, as one coach put it, "a necessary evil."

Having been called many things by coaches, parents and prospects, it is the compliance staffs that pore through thousands of recruiting calls, correspondence and travel documents. It is we compliance staffs who require staff and students to attend numerous programming and rules-education sessions. We inundate them with hundreds of e-mails throughout the year titled "reminders," "tips of the week" and "updates." We say, "Let me look into that for you," and eventually say "no" and "sorry, you can't do that." We say: "Please put it in writing." "Use the correct form, please." "Please follow procedures." We use words and phrases like "prior and subsequent to," "pursuant to" and "in accordance with."

NCAA legislation.

We're never known for the 99 correct interpretations, but for the one time a "gray area" was misdiagnosed.

Yes, it is the life we compliance folks have chosen -- and truth be told, it's a very rewarding life.

There are many 16-hour days and seven-day weeks, but when it is all said and done, not one compliance staff in America will say its work is boring, dull or mundane.



From my perspective, compliance jobs compare to no other position in athletics. Call me a nerd, but we get to learn hundreds of new rules every year, while we try to forget the deleted ones. We get to detect, facilitate, regulate, investigate and implement. We speak with attorneys, professional sport organizations, and law enforcement and state officials. We get to look at contracts and do background checks on agents and runners. We know how to inspect vehicle purchases and apartment and home leases. Sometimes we even get to look at surveillance tape, or try and decode and trace anonymous telephones calls or letters.

We can observe any team practice or contest whenever we want. We can turn a room that is bustling with noise and conversation into instant silence by merely walking through the door. We get to know every student-athlete, every coach and every support staff -- and can ask just about anything job-related and expect to get the truth. The university president knows our names, as do the boosters, local media and news writers. We can even make decisions and issue directives that ultimately can put our institution on the map. We are sometimes the most popular and most needed staff on campus.

But many times, we are not known for the hundreds of accurate interpretations we issue. We are not known for processing 75-page self-reports or writing 50-page waivers to get the next "greatest-athlete" eligible. We are never credited for wins, but sometimes for losses -- for that one athlete who didn't get reinstated or that one who didn't get through the Clearinghouse. Somehow -- and mistakenly -- it becomes the compliance office's fault.

And yes, we can implement and facilitate hundreds of programming and rules-education sessions, but we all know that education does not always lead to behavior modification. We can even be on the senior administrative staff, making weekly rounds to give coaches and staff face time. We can serve as a sport administrator and even as the SWA; or we can make presentations to booster groups, local club teams, parents and recruits -- and yet still be considered "on the outside."

Sure, you will have those few and great coaches or staff members who will appreciate the compliance staff's efforts and challenges. They may even take you to lunch once in a while, but many of us still must expect some isolation and misdirected malice that will come from coaches or staff who neither realize nor comprehend that we are there for them and their programs -- that we work for them and with them. Ultimately, we are all in this thing together. It is the way it has always been.

I read a quote the other day from Colin Powell, who said, "Procrastinating on the difficult choices by trying not to get anyone mad and by treating everyone equally `nicely' regardless of their contributions simply ensures that the only people you'll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization." And I thought to myself how that quote hit it on the head for us compliance folks around the country.

And then I watched that movie called "A Few Good Men," and there was the frightening antagonist barking, "Deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.... I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way."

I wondered if he had ever been a compliance guy.

Then, I thought back to my first year as the compliance guy and I concluded: The experience has well been worth it.

So, for all you compliance guys and gals: Keep up the good fight. Your value and worth to your institution may go unseen and unappreciated -- but you are making a difference. They need you on that wall, even if some never say it. It is the way it has always been.

Eric Toliver is associate director of athletics for administration and compliance at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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