Reasons for an Athletics Compliance Department

Gilbert Carrillo
Executive Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law,  JD 2017


The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) is a non-profit organization that regulates athletes in over 1,200 institutions, associations and conferences.  The NCAA also organizes many of the athletic programs of its member schools.  The amount of members in the NCAA requires rules be established in order to facilitate success for the organization as a whole.  Moreover, since the NCAA is divided into different divisions (Division I, II, and III-generally larger schools compete in Division I and smaller schools in II and III), the rules and regulations can vary depending on which division the institution belongs to.

NCAA rules range from areas of financial aid, eligibility, recruiting, athletics personnel, playing, and practice sessions.  However, most athletic programs must also follow rules laid out by their own institution as well as rules laid out by the conferences (Big Ten, ACC, SEC, etc.) for which they are members.  Although most higher educational institutions have a university-wide compliance department in order to assist the organization in addressing specific standards (e.g., federal student loans, research grants, etc.), it is not uncommon to find university compliance initiatives around athletics broken out an siloed to address the unique challenges of athletics compliance.

Perhaps the biggest area of need for athletics compliance departments relates to the preservation of student-athlete amateurism and eligibility.  The university is held responsible for the actions of coaches, athletes, staff, faculty, season ticket holders, donors, and even fans, when there are rule infractions related to current or prospective student athletes.   Student-athletes are responsible for knowing and complying with rules that apply to them; non-compliance risks the student being excluded from competition.

Although the NCAA has its own set of eligibility rules, there are additional rules an institution may adopt that apply only to student-athletes in those specific institutions and member conferences.  While generally these rules have the same goal, they may have different standards and thresholds of compliance.  For example, NCAA academic eligibility requirements may differ compared to the school’s academic eligibility requirements.  Therefore, because a student-athlete may be in compliance to participate in NCAA activities generally, the student-athlete may not be in compliance with his or her school’s policy.  This creates a patchwork of rules that may go beyond the basic NCAA standards but to which NCAA will hold the student accountable.

Just as in any other industry, the rules can change from year to year.  For example, the NCAA Division I academic eligibility requirements for incoming student-athletes entering schools after August 1, 2016, will face significant changes regarding the admission standards. (See, NCAA Eligibility Quick Reference Guide)  Students seeking eligibility at NCAA Division I schools must now have at least ten (10) “core subjects” completed before the student’s seventh semester in high school. Previously, students simply needed to have their “core subjects” requirement completed any time before graduation.  There is no sense yet how this academic requirement will impact athletes entering the collegiate level of sports but it will be a standard that athletic compliance departments will need to closely monitor.

This change also raises the question of who has the responsibility of educating the prospective students about this requirement.  Should college coaches reach out to students earlier in the student’s high school years to make sure the requirement is met?  There are even certain rules and regulations regarding who can speak to prospective student-athletes.

Additionally, there are rules regarding what types of services a collegiate student-athlete can and cannot receive.  Generally, the rule states that a collegiate student-athlete cannot accept any extra benefits that are not offered to other students.  Essentially, student-athletes cannot be treated more favorably than other non-student-athletes.  The rules surrounding gifts, meals, and transportation are very strict.  For example, a student-athlete cannot accept “free or reduced cost merchandise (e.g., athletic shoes, music cassettes/cd’s, clothing) or services from a merchant unless that free or reduced cost item is also available to the general public.” (See for example, the application of this policy by the University of Notre Dame,   This policy also extends to family members of the student-athlete.  “The acceptance by you, your parent(s)/guardian(s), or friends of any extra benefit is a violation of NCAA regulations.”  The consequences of these rule violations can be severe and detrimental to the universities and the athletic programs not to mention the athletes themselves.

The penalties for non-compliance are vast.  These violations can result in a university being unable to offer athletic scholarships for prospective student-athletes.  Some violations can result in loss of consideration in bowl games, a significant source of income for athletic departments.  Moreover, certain violations can rule players ineligible to compete and if the player happens to be a staple of the athletic program, it could impact how the team will perform.

Although these rules generally apply to all student-athletes, there are high profile sports that these rules are especially important for, particularly basketball and football.  (See, Chung, Doug J. “The Dynamic Advertising Effect of Collegiate Athletics.” Marketing Science 32.5 (2013): 679-98)  The reason compliance within these sports is especially important is because these are the two sports that tend to generate the most, if not the only, money for an institution’s entire athletic department.  Moreover, success in basketball and football leads to an increase in prospective students interest in attending the university.  Winning sports programs at universities can also lead to greater donations from boosters and alumni.

With the volume of rules and regulations associated with the athletic programs, the effects of non-compliance, and the positive impact the success of athletic programs can have on universities, it is easy to understand why athletic compliance departments are necessary at these institutions.  Athletic compliance departments do not necessarily focus on laws, but on voluntary association standards and local policy.  While violating these standards may not be illegal, the consequences of non-compliance can be just as dramatic.