Jason Leonard was returning from a deposition in Louisiana when he heard, through a friend, of a position opening in the University of Oklahoma’s office of general counsel. It was early 2006, and Leonard had, by then, been practicing law for more than a decade, partnering with his wife to form an Oklahoma City firm specializing in employment matters.
The idea of working with his state’s flagship research university seemed like a positive professional opportunity that could clear pathways to other areas of law.
Nine months into his new gig, Joe Harroz, then OU’s general counsel—and now the school president—asked Leonard to assist the athletics department in responding to a major NCAA infractions case over Sooners football players earning money from no-show jobs at a local car dealership, Big Red Sports and Imports.
“It was the door that opened, and I walked through,” said Leonard, who became the Sooners’ executive director of athletic compliance later that year, a job he has held ever since.
In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the work of college sports compliance has grown increasingly fraught—reflected by the growing numbers of attorneys that have joined Leonard within its ranks—but arguably no more esteemed. As such, it is a silo of intercollegiate athletics known for high burnout rates.
During his tenure at Oklahoma, Leonard estimates that his compliance shop has seen a 30% to 40% annual turnover, which he assumes is fairly standard for similar athletic departments across the country. OU’s most recent exodus, within the last couple months, comprised two compliance staffers with law degrees, both of whom left to take jobs practicing law.
“They might as well get paid more if they are going to work as hard as they do,” said Leonard, who recently became president of the National Association for Athletics Compliance, the trade organization representing what Leonard terms the “dumping ground” of athletic departments.
The burdens of compliance work have felt especially weighty of late, with the inception of college athlete NIL and the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston, both of which have forced athletic departments to grope through the deep unknown. The task of figuring it all out has fallen to compliance staffers.
With the “writing on the wall,” Leonard says he began working three months ago with his counterparts at Oklahoma State and Tulsa to craft the language of what became the state’s NIL bill, which was signed into law on June 2.
And so, a job that was already overwhelming now feels doubly so.
— OU Compliance (@OUCompliance) July 1, 2021
Tellingly, Leonard’s immediate predecessor as NAAC president, Andrew Donovan, announced this week he would be leaving his post as Tennessee’s senior associate AD for regulatory affairs to become a vice president with Altius, the NIL consulting firm.
“It is an exciting opportunity to brand myself beyond compliance,” Donovan told Sportico.
For those who continue to ply the trade, Leonard hopes this disruptive moment in college sports will, at the very least, improve their market value.
“I hope it creates a ripple effect where they have increases in salaries, because those individuals are underappreciated and underpaid,” said Leonard.
These days, the salaries of Power Five compliance directors top out in the low-$200,000s (Leonard, near the pinnacle of the market, earns $209,250 a year), while entry-level positions at those schools often pay less than $40,000 annually.
Arkansas’ Deputy AD Jon Fagg says that top compliance staffers traditionally have not been compensated like their equivalents in development or external operations.
“The thought is they bring in revenue, but I protect revenue,” said Fagg, who adds that at $225,000 a year, he himself is “very well-paid.” (As with most other things, the Southeastern Conference tends to pay the best.)
For Group of 5 schools, it is atypical for an athletics compliance staff to include more than one employee making in excess of $50,000 per year.
“It is terrible,” said Leonard.
The work itself can be not only grudging but grudge-making, and for a college sports marketplace built on who you know, that often makes advancement precarious.
“Once you are in compliance you are put in an adversarial role,” said Elliott Charles, who was named Chicago State’s athletic director in 2019 after running compliance for the Clemson Tigers. Charles’ direct jump to a Division I AD job—albeit at an athletic department in dire straits—is atypical and, he says, the product of careful foresight.
“I was an opportunist who said, ‘How can I take my skills and leap out?’” Charles said, adding that he consciously got into compliance to “learn the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics.”
He added: “What you are really getting evaluated on is how you are received by coaching staffs. If you cannot discern how to not just survive but manage the inherent conflict [of the job], you are going to be giving up on your career goals.”
The pressure on these employees is only intensifying as college sports begins to deregulate and the NCAA’s fat book of bylaws fails to address some of the most pressing compliance questions.
“It sounds like a powder keg for unionization,” said Charles. “If people are committed to being in the field, they will have to demand what is necessary to make sure they have assurances.”
Aside from fostering greater job security, Leonard says compliance staffers will need other institutional mechanisms to empower them to use their best judgment, without fear of being scapegoated.
“There is always that worry,” says Fagg. “Compliance lives on the front lines.”
Following the Big Red scandal, Oklahoma decided to change its reporting lines; Leonard’s position would permanently answer to the general counsel’s office instead of the athletic director.
Similarly, NCAA sanctions prompted Southern California to move its athletics compliance office outside of athletics. In 2010, following NCAA investigations into two of its star athletes—Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and future NBA lottery pick O.J. Mayo—USC created the first known position of university vice president for athletic compliance. That post reports to the university’s office of professionalism and ethics.
But USC and Oklahoma are unusual in this way: An NAAC survey last year found that 80% of FBS schools keep their compliance staff completely within the athletic department. While Leonard thinks OU’s chain of command ensures the greatest protection for his institution, he says it also hampers the professional prospects for those in compliance.
“There is not a real opportunity to advance, because you are not part of the athletics department,” he said. “A lot of people get into compliance to become an athletics director, and it kind of cuts off that path.”
For Donovan, 33, whose final day at UT is next Friday, his mid-career shift comes amid a particularly harried time in Knoxville.
Over the last seven months, Tennessee has been embroiled in the fallout over alleged major NCAA violations committed by former football coach Jeremy Pruitt, which led to his firing and the dismissal of nine other football staffers for cause.
Donovan said he is leaving the school of his own accord.
“It has been a lot,” he said of the ongoing internal probe, which Tennessee is conducting in coordination with the NCAA. “Would I like to see it all the way through to the final day of adjudication? Yes, but I put everything into it I could, and I am leaving the university in the best position possible. But those things do wear on you.”
On June 3, Tennessee announced a partnership with Altius, to assist in its athlete NIL education program; this connection ultimately paved the way for Donovan’s departure. The biggest appeal of the new job, he said, is knowing that he was hired to be a “business person,” and therefore allowed to reach beyond his compliance niche.
Donovan’s waning days in the Tennessee job have been, not surprisingly, consumed by NIL. That included his leading a joint presentation this week for UT athletes, in conjunction with, yes, Altius.
Back in Oklahoma, Leonard is stumped when asked what has kept him in this role for 15 years.
“That is a good question, one I will have to think about,” he said. “It is a situation where I told Joe Harroz when I took over I would get us through probation, and that was supposed to be for five years. And then we had another matter come up, and I had another two or three years…. I thought it would be five-plus years, and I would move somewhere in athletics.”
He paused, before adding, “I am still looking for that opportunity.”