Sports Lawyer Ellen Ferris’s Past Experiences Fuel Rise to AAC Compliance Chief

Sep 27, 2019

The recipe for a successful career is often an amalgamation of many ingredients. And so it has been with Ellen Ferris, who was named Associate Commissioner for Governance and Compliance at the fast-growing American Athletic Conference (AAC) in October 2013. Her extensive experience at the NCAA, as well as at the institutional and conference levels, played a big role in her advancement.
Ferris joined the AAC from the University of Southern California, where she served as Associate Vice President for Athletic Compliance. Before joining the staff at USC, Ferris spent more than three years at the NCAA, including one year as Associate Director of Membership Services. She served as a staff liaison to Division I institutions in the athletics certification process and presented rules education sessions at conference meetings and regional compliance seminars. In addition, Ferris spent three academic years as Assistant Commissioner for Compliance Services at the Big Sky Conference, where she was also the league’s Senior Woman Administrator.
Ferris has served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Athletic Compliance and has been a member of the NAAC Reasonable Standards Committee, the NCAA Division I Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee, the Division I Management Council and the Division I Men’s Tennis Committee. She currently serves on the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeal Committee.
Ferris holds an undergraduate degree in education from Texas State University-San Marcos and a master’s degree in sport management from the United States Sports Academy. She earned a Juris Doctor degree from Southern Methodist University and was admitted to the Texas State Bar in 1999.
Ferris’ success merits a deeper look into how she has charted a successful course, one that other compliance professionals might learn from in the interview that follows:
Question: Was there anyone in your college years who influenced you down the path of NCAA compliance and how?
Answer: I was a graduate assistant at SMU working in athletic academic support when the football program was sanctioned by the NCAA. Watching the fallout from that was my first introduction to compliance, and I became interested in the ripple effect of how policies and decisions affected individuals outside the intended scope. Several years later, I enrolled in law school knowing that I wanted to work in college athletics. I completed several internships, including one in compliance at the Southland Conference with Beth Chapman (now at The Compliance Group). Beth was a great mentor, and while working with her, I knew I found my niche in athletics.
Q: How did your experience at the NCAA prepare you for a successful career in compliance?
A: Working at the NCAA relatively early in my compliance career was transformational. My colleagues were intelligent and driven; they approached issues from different perspectives, which forced me to think more critically and creatively. The NCAA provided a strong foundational knowledge of the rules and their rationales. In addition, I had the opportunity to meet a variety of individuals in the industry, and those interactions allowed me to see how different institutions operated. Understanding that there is more than one way to reach a goal and having a phenomenal group of colleagues across the country to discuss ideas with has helped me tremendously throughout my career. 
Q: How do your responsibilities differ at the NCAA or conference level versus at an individual school?
A: Conference compliance is more policy-governance driven, whereas compliance on campus is more student-athlete/coach driven. On campus, your role is to implement and enforce the rules, which may include providing education, completing forms and reviewing data…. essentially ensuring all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. You are working with individuals to resolve their questions or issues, and, in that moment, that person becomes the focus of your attention (i.e., what is the fair outcome for that individual). When you are at the conference or the NCAA, your focus is more at the macro level. The perspective of fairness shifts to creation of policies and rules, and how can they be written to ensure equality for all participants.
Q: What are the most challenging NCAA rules to enforce and why?
A: Recruiting rules are the most difficult to enforce. Many are created as a reaction to extreme situations, but, when applied to common situations, the rules are counterintuitive. Many individuals working in college athletics are uber-competitive and creative. The downside is that it can lead to a culture of one-upmanship, which then leads to a continuous moving of the line, and the result is constant change and pressure to outdo the competition. In addition, technology changes quickly but the rules change slowly. Trying to apply outdated rules to new technology can be very challenging.
Q: What are the biggest changes you have noticed with the NCAA rules enforcement staff since you joined the conference?
A: The enforcement staff has improved its outreach to the membership. Each conference has a liaison in football and basketball development, and they have been willing to join conference calls or attend in-person meetings with our membership. We have had other enforcement staff members with specific expertise (e.g., academic fraud, sports wagering) present to our membership as well. This has been very beneficial in that it increases the knowledge for our membership and it provides an opportunity for the enforcement staff to better understand the challenges faced on various campuses.
Q: What is the key to being a successful manager of a compliance team?
Communication: Having clear, consistent communication is essential in a compliance office, and this applies to communication both internally and externally to your department.
Innovation: Being innovative is necessary to keep up with changing rules, priorities and technology. Compliance administrators are being asked to do more every year, while still being expected to monitor the activities of 250 plus staff members and 600 plus student-athletes. You have to find new ways to be efficient and effective while appropriately prioritizing the issues needing to be addressed.
Professional development opportunities: Having a strong compliance office starts with who you hire. Providing professional development opportunities to the staff helps to develop and retain the superstars in our industry.
Q: What advice would you give a young compliance professional in order to have a successful career in the field? 
Develop excellent communication skills and know your audience. You will be working with a variety of different personalities and you need to learn how to best communicate with each of them. How you provide information to a student-athlete will not be the same as how you respond to a coach or an administrator.
Be a problem solver. First, though, to solve a problem, you have to understand it. Learn the rules and the rationale for why a rule was adopted. One fact can be the difference between a yes and a no answer, so pay attention to the details and ask questions. Before giving a “no” answer, make sure you understand what the individual is really trying to accomplish and see if there is another way to achieve (or get close to achieving) it within the rules. Be creative, but ethical, in your solutions. But, at the end of the day, if the answer is no, do not be afraid to say so.
Have the ability to adapt to and facilitate change. If you need a consistent, structured environment to work well, then compliance might not be the best option. No two days are alike, and your priorities can change in a minute based on the events of the day. Working in compliance is a sometimes-mundane, sometimes-exhilarating, generally-challenging, roller-coaster of an adventure! As frustrating as it can be sometimes, it is definitely a very interesting and rewarding career.


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