Sometimes the days seem like an endless parade of airports and nondescript conference rooms. As an NCAA associate director of enforcement, I can spend well over 100 nights on the road each year visiting campuses across the country. I've been around long enough to know that many of my trips may have serious consequences for everybody involved. Those that are more routine will stay out of the public spotlight. Most of my work doesn't make headlines.
But whenever I visit a campus to conduct yet another investigation, I remind myself that while this may feel like an ordinary work day for me, it is far from ordinary for the people I'm going to talk to. It's stressful and a major disruption of their already packed schedules. It may be the only interaction they ever have with someone like me. What happens in some nondescript conference room will have ramifications that resonate far beyond its walls. They will come in with preconceived notions of what the process is like, and with fears of what might happen. They often don't understand that I'm just looking for the facts; that I just want to be fair and, most importantly, to get it right.
I didn't understand it either two decades ago. My career in college athletics started at the Nebraska in 1996. I was a graduate student in the history department, and I was flat broke. I saw an announcement on a campus bulletin board that the university was hiring tutors. The address on the flyer was 300 West Stadium. I found it odd that the campus tutoring center was located inside Memorial Stadium. It wasn't until after the interview that I realized I would be working as a tutor in athletics. I spent four years in the Cornhuskers' athletic department working in various capacities, then left for Colorado, where I spent six years working as an academic adviser in the Buffaloes' athletic department.
When we watch college football on television we rarely hear about the armies of hard working people who make the games possible. Compliance officers work with college athletes to make sure they know the rules. Maintenance workers prepare facilities. Athletic trainers, sports information directors, strength coaches, academic officials and dozens more work together to ensure that both teams are on the field and ready to compete. Many behind-the-scenes heroes sacrifice their nights and weekends in this collective effort.
So why do it? For me, it's because of the student-athletes. We frequently celebrate players who excel athletically, academically and in other admirable pursuits. But there are more than 460,000 student-athletes who give their best every day, most without any high-profile exposure. They are worth celebrating too.
I attended law school after leaving Colorado and joined a large law firm in Boston. It didn't take long for me to realize that college athletics was where I truly belonged. When I accepted a position with the NCAA in 2010 as an assistant director of enforcement, I began the job with some trepidation. I didn't have a high opinion of the NCAA when I worked at the university level. I once complained to a coach about the NCAA and he asked me to not forget that "the NCAA is us." I never really understood what he meant. Only after I began working for the NCAA did I grasp the fact that it exists to serve its member colleges and universities. And just like the legions who work hard to get a football team ready for competition, there are a lot of people at the NCAA national office trying to not just provide excellent service to member schools, but to get it right. That is especially true in enforcement.
Just get it right. If I've heard that once, I've heard it a thousand times. What did the investigation reveal? Does it support an alleged violation or not?
They are simple questions, but both involve a tremendous amount of thought and analysis. The enforcement staff must meet a high bar to allege that a violation has occurred. Such an allegation is not, as many in the public may think, something that is decided haphazardly. Nor is it made to satisfy an outside interest or appease a particular person. Instead, we try to get every case right—for the parties involved, for the conference competitors and for the entire association. In addition to NCAA rules, we also have operating procedures, official interpretations, internal reviews and other safeguards and quality control measures that help us make sure we get it right. After all, decisions are made based not on what the enforcement staff believes in a particular case, but on what facts we provide to the Committee on Infractions. It is the committee—a group of representatives from NCAA schools—that determines whether an infraction has taken place.
Not all the facts we work with during a case are publicly available. Sometimes we have additional information or different facts that the public doesn't know about, but which we cannot share because of our confidentiality rules. So what may seem to people like a clear-cut case is often more complex than they realize. We work every day knowing that the right decision may not be a popular decision, and we are willing to take the criticism that often—or inevitably—follows.
But no matter what criticism we face in the wake of those decisions, I rest easy at night—whether I'm at home or on one of the many trips that I make to college campuses—because I'm certain we did everything we could to get it right.
Kathy Sulentic has worked for 15 years in college athletics, and is an associate director of enforcement at the NCAA.