Understanding NCAA Compliance with JMU’s Stephen LaPorta

July 20th, 2018 | by Jonathan Yates
Understanding NCAA Compliance with JMU’s Stephen LaPorta

ncaa compliance
What is NCAA compliance and what does it mean to work in an NCAA compliance department? CollegeAD’s Johnathan Yates had the opportunity to get an inside look at the often misunderstood world of intercollegiate compliance. James Madison Assistant A.D. for Compliance Stephen LaPorta who has served in his current role of leading the Dukes compliance department since 2014 brought Yates into the world of NCAA compliance discussing his role, how he got his start, the functions of an NCAA compliance office, and why the department serves a vital service.

The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity

Jonathan Yates: What makes compliance so important in college sports?

Stephen LaPorta: I think the obvious and easy answer is to ensure that our nearly 350 member institutions are all playing by the same rules. The rules are ever evolving, so we play a key role in the governance of those rules. I think a secondary reason why compliance is so important is we almost serve as a buffer between the various constituents. We try our best to represent the views and opinions of our student-athletes, coaches, and administrators. We almost serve as a mediator at times with situations on campus and even through the legislative process on the national level. We are instrumental in evaluating changes that are occurring and identifying unintended consequences that may be overlooked if an individual doesn’t have their finger on the pulse of all groups involved.

JY: What led you to work in compliance?

SL: I was really fortunate to be able to do an internship while I was a senior in college in athletics administration at Virginia Tech. During the internship, I was given opportunities to work with various departments in athletics. The compliance office is one of the few offices that get to work directly with student-athletes and coaches on a daily basis. I enjoy the work because no two days are alike. I enjoy being the person that people throughout the department come to when there is a question or problem.

JY: What have you learned about NCAA compliance that surprised you before you started in the area?

SL: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the amount of interpretation that the rules are subject to. When it is your first day on the job and you see a 400-page “rule book” I assumed the rules were black and white. Little did I know that there would also be a database of nearly 3000 active interpretations and educational columns to assist the membership in applying the rules! Things get really fun when a situation arises that isn’t addressed in the manual or through active interpretations.

JY: Is there a traditional path in compliance as a career, or is it part of a well-rounded background in college sports management that leads upward to the ultimate goal of making it to The Chair, being an athletic director?

SL: Compliance can certainly be a traditional career path. It is funny a lot of college students don’t realize that a career in compliance is even an option. A majority of college students that I have met at internship fairs are initially interested in marketing, fundraising, or event management. Once you start engaging with them and explaining what a career in compliance looks like they begin to gain interest. I’ve seen a lot of compliance administrators move into other senior leadership roles including athletics director positions because of the skills and experience they possess. Current AD’s are giving responsibilities that are outside of compliance (ex. sport supervision) to compliance administrators which is giving them the well-rounded experience that prepares them for a potential career as an athletics director.

JY: What has been most rewarding about your job in compliance?

ncaa complianceSL: Being able to have a positive impact on the lives of our student-athletes. Our vision at JMU is to be the NCAA model for the student-athlete experience. It is very rewarding being able to help enhance that experience by doing things like a waiver for a student-athlete. While we may not have to do a waiver for all of our athletes, we can still be involved in helping to prepare them for life after college. When a former student-athlete comes back to campus after a few years and you are able to see how successful they have become in part due to their time spent as a student-athlete it is truly rewarding.

JY: Is a compliance department doing its job best when it stays out of the news?

SL: Obviously, no compliance officer wants to end up in the news for a negative reason. However, I think it’s actually a good thing to be “in the news”. It is important to have a positive relationship with your local media. They can be a tremendous avenue to help educate boosters and other constituents. Having a presence in the news is a great way to reach people that you may not have the ability to otherwise.

JY: How critical is high technology like software packages for the operations of a modern compliance department?

SL: There are a number of software packages that help compliance offices operate. Some are instrumental in helping to monitor while others help enhance communication throughout the department. For example, when I first started in compliance we were monitoring telephone calls via handwritten logs. Hours were spent trying to monitor those logs. Now, we have systems that automatically log calls into the system and handle the monitoring for us. Having this technology can really help save time and allows us to focus on other areas like education.

JY: How is compliance involved in recruiting?

SL: Obviously, we are heavily involved in the education and monitoring of recruiting rules. Outside of that, we can be a tremendous asset to our coaches as they go through the recruiting process with prospects. We are always available to sit down with prospects when they visit campus to provide information about eligibility, admissions, and even financial aid. While I don’t think anyone has ever committed because of these meetings; I do think it goes a long way to show the prospects the level of commitment they can expect from the administration if they decide to come to JMU.

JY: What does your school do in compliance that allows it to perform so well (without giving away secrets of the craft)?

SL: I think the one thing that really allows us to be successful is the education first approach that we take. We try to be proactive with our coaches and that really helps prevent problems. This approach also helps foster a positive relationship between the compliance office and the coaching staff. It is very difficult to be successful in this business if you don’t have a positive relationship with your coaches that is based on trust. At the end of the day, we are all on the same team and I want to help our coaches and student-athletes reach their goals.

JY: Is effective NCAA compliance a competitive advantage in athletics?

SL: It definitely can be. One of the things I enjoy most about working in compliance is problem-solving. It would be easy to just say “yes” or “no” when a coach comes to you with an interpretive question. The key is when the answer is “no” coming up with alternatives for coaches. I want to be able to work with our coaches to get them as close to their goal as possible while still staying within the rules. Our coaches can be very creative, so if we can work with them to come up with permissible ideas or solutions that other coaches aren’t thinking of, it will provide them with an advantage over their counterparts.

Jonathan Yates About Jonathan Yates
Jonathan Yates spent much of his career working for Members of Congress in a variety of press and legislative posts. Positions he has held working for Members of Congress and state legislators include Chief of Staff, General Counsel, Legislative Director, Press Secretary, and Legislative Assistant. His journalistic work has appeared in such periodicals as The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Investor's Business Daily, and TheStreet, among others. He has degrees from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown University Law Center; and has also matriculated at the U.S. Naval War College and The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Jonathan also hosts The Culture of Sports You can follow Jonathan Yates on Twitter at @politicsports13

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