Lawyer Shifts from Legal Department to Overseeing Athletics Compliance

Sep 11, 2009

You can go home again.
That’s what Jason Leonard found out in 2006 when he was named executive director of athletics compliance at the University of Oklahoma.
In the mid-1990s, Leonard had been a three-time Academic All-American as a member of the Sooner wrestling team.
Back home in the athletic department, Leonard is now responsible for the oversight of all daily athletics compliance operations and rules education efforts, as well as being the lead investigator on all rules violations investigations and reporting.
Leonard, who received his undergraduate degree and juris doctorate from OU, took over the compliance role after previously working as associate general counsel in the University of Oklahoma’s Legal Department.
What follows is our regular feature where we interview a compliance professional about their job to better understand the legal and compliance challenges they face in administering collegiate athletics.
Question: What are the biggest challenges facing compliance directors today?
Answer: The biggest challenge for compliance departments today is staying on top of the additional monitoring requirements that result from major infractions cases nationwide. Generally, most compliance departments have incorporated the necessary monitoring consistent with existing bylaws and most can anticipate the necessary monitoring for new legislation; however, the indirect results of recent major cases across the country have added unanticipated and challenging monitoring levels. Coupled with the fact that budgets are tight and usually compliance personnel are the first to lose their jobs in difficult economic times make it difficult for compliance departments to operate at a high level. Luckily, Oklahoma has compliance advocates both in the University’s President and its Athletics Director, so our department receives the resources, personnel and support necessary to address these challenges.
Q: What has been the defining moment of your career as a compliance director?
A: I really don’t have a “defining moment”. I truly enjoy working at the University of Oklahoma and value all the time that I have spent in the Compliance Department.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?
A: I enjoy working with the student-athletes, coaches and University personnel to achieve success for the University.
Q: What’s the best way to remove the adversarial element of your relationship with coaches?
A: One way to do this is to be available all the time. I personally have a University cell phone that is never turned off. I encourage coaches to call nights, weekends and holidays if they need advice and counsel or have compliance questions. Also, when asked a question by a coach regarding the permissibility of an act, your first response should never be “no”… even if the ultimate answer to the question probably will be no. To immediately respond in the negative shows coaches that you are not working with their best interest at heart. Compliance is a resource for coaches, and it is the responsibility of compliance to ensure that we analyze all avenues within the limits of the rules to try to obtain a positive result.
Q: Do you consider yourself understaffed, or just about right?
A: Our compliance department staff consists of eight (8) fulltime employees; therefore, it is larger than most. However, even with eight (8), as with all universities, we are still susceptible to a major infractions case. In fact, you could have fifty (50) compliance department employees and still not be able to monitor everything in detail. You have to create a “culture of compliance” on campus, which fosters an environment where individuals make principled decisions about compliance-related issues even when a compliance department employee is not around.
Q: How is your staff divided (i.e., does each person specialize in a certain type of rule and violation, or are they assigned to teams?
A: We divide our employees’ responsibilities based on chapters and job duties rather than by sports. It seems to be a better system than dividing the employees based on sports.
Q: How does your staff monitor the social network presence of your student athletes?
A: We ask that the student-athletes make us their “friends”, but we do not require them to do so. We do, however, require our coaches to make us their “friends.” We also monitor the social networking sites of several prospects that the University is recruiting.
It is amazing what we find on social networking sites. If there are compliance departments that are not currently monitoring social networking sites, I would suggest they do so as soon as possible.
Q: Do you find that student-athletes concern themselves with learning compliance rules on their own and monitoring their own behavior, or do they need to be closely watched?
A: It really depends on the particular student-athlete…some don’t need to be monitored and some need 24/7 monitoring. However, regardless of the type of student-athlete, all of our student-athletes are better educated regarding compliance due to the resources the University has put into rules education.
Q: What are the most challenging issues confronting you as a compliance director?
A: I feel the biggest challenge is keeping employees in the compliance department. As everyone is aware, working in compliance is a difficult job that receives very little, if any, appreciation. Further, the hours are long and the pay is not great. Other positions in the Athletics Department are viewed as much more rewarding.
Q: Do you ever interact with anyone outside the athletic department, such as general counsel, the FAR, or the President’s Office, and what is the nature of that interaction?
A: I report directly to General Counsel and have an indirect line to President Boren. I keep them apprised of most all matters that are occurring within the Compliance Department. Further, I meet monthly with the Athletics Compliance Oversight Group, which consists of the Athletics Director, the Faculty Athletics Representative and General Counsel. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss all matters related to the Athletics Compliance Department.


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