The Michael L. Buckner Law Firm continues its Blue Ribbon Tips series with insight from Jason Leonard, University of Oklahoma executive director of athletics compliance. A Blue Ribbon Tips post contains athletically-related best practices, strategies and tips for administrators from NCAA member institutions and other higher-education professionals.
Mr. Leonard opines the three most significant issues impacting athletics programs in the next five years include:
1. Compliance: The emergence of compliance-related issues involving third-parties will be the great unknown for athletics programs in the foreseeable future. He feels NCAA infractions decisions dictate that institutions “are responsible for educating and monitoring those individuals that are somewhat associated with the school,” including street agents and third-parties. Mr. Leonard notes “these days, what we are seeing are individuals [street agents and third-parties] that have no affiliation or regard for the affected schools.” Thus, compliance programs are required to “identify and monitor individuals that have relationships with prospects, but no affiliation with the institution’s sport programs.” He described major enforcement cases and scandals involving the influence of unaffiliated parties on football and basketball student-athletes as the “unknown.” He cautions “the major scandals with major football and basketball programs are those things that you say cannot happen here, but for which you have to be prepared” to proactively address. To attack the unknown factor, Mr. Leonard states the OU compliance department tries to build relationships with their student-athletes using a variety of methods, such as Twitter and Facebook, reviews allCOIcases and lives by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who once stated: “The time is always right to do what is right”.
2. Communication: Mr. Leonard believes “communication is key” and “having a game plan to address certain type of issues” is the cornerstone of an effective communication strategy. He suggests “looking at your own policies and procedures and taking the necessary time to employ” the best people in positions who will “make the right choice when they are required to make the right choice”.
3. Clear lines of authority: Mr. Leonard observes that there will “always be a struggle on campuses between authority versus power” because “you might have authority on campus in your administrative role, but the “power” is typically held by others, such as your coaches. He suggests asking the following questions: “Can you go report what you need to report?” and “Can you terminate someone’s employment that might have a great deal of power in the community”? If the answer is no to each question, then athletics administrators do not possess the necessary authority and power to successfully achieve the essential objectives of the institution. Mr. Leonard recommends that your senior institutional administrators (Presidents and Athletics Directors) convey a clear message to all that “your position has the authority and power to make the right decision and such decisions will be supported”.
According to Mr. Leonard, presidents, general counsel, athletic directors and compliance personnel can do two things to minimize the impact of the three significant issues he listed. First, he advises “senior administrators need to be familiar with” major infractions that occurred at “other institutions, and then prepare to make sure that they do not occur at your institution.” He observes that “until you have a major, you don’t understand the costs and public scrutiny that accompany the scandal”. Second, Mr. Leonard suggests senior administrators need to understand the value of the athletics compliance program. According to Mr. Leonard, “traditionally in an athletics department, areas that do not generate revenue might not receive the necessary attention or funding” (such as athletics compliance), but institutions “have to get away from that line of thinking.” As such, “compliance should be viewed as an insurance policy—the more money you put into an insurance policy, the more savings you will receive in return.”
Mr. Leonard also recommends that when viewing major infractions and the NCAA enforcement system, people need to understand there are many occasions in which an institution can have a major even though it did everything possible to prevent the infraction…..so the key might just be to “minimize”. Specifically, Mr. Leonard believes, “We work in a flawed system—there is no 100% success rate” because there are “too many different variables outside of the [institution’s] control.” So, considering the current regulatory framework, Mr. Leonard states the optimal outcome that an athletics compliance department can achieve is “to not have a lack of institutional control or a failure to monitor” allegation asserted against the institution. Further if charged with a major, he states an institution should “want the enforcement staff to acknowledge that the institution did everything within its power to avoid the situation” to mitigate a lack of control or failure to monitor charge—despite the existence of “circumstances that would lead to a major” rules violation.
Finally, Mr. Leonard offers, due to recent scandals, many athletics compliance departments are hiring individuals with legal degrees and/or private investigator licenses. In fact, he feels “the value of a law degree is becoming more and more important” and “valuable” in athletics compliance “because he does not see these scandals going away anytime soon.”
Jason Leonard Biography
Jason Leonard became the executive director of athletics compliance in December, 2006. In his current role, Leonard is responsible for the oversight of all daily athletics compliance operations and rules education efforts, and is lead investigator on all rules violations investigations and reporting. Leonard is currently a member of the National Association of Athletics Compliance Coordinators.
Leonard previously worked as associate general counsel in the University of Oklahoma’s Legal Department. In that role, he was responsible for handling the litigation for the University of Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Tulsa Health Sciences Center, Rogers State University and Cameron University.
Leonard’s ties with OU reach back to his undergraduate days. A native of Perry, Oklahoma, Leonard graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of business administration in 1994 with a major in business marketing and a minor in business law.
Leonard was a three-time Academic All-American as a member of the Sooner wrestling team. He earned Academic All-Big Eight honors four times and was the top scholar athlete in 1993-1994 for the Sooner wrestling team. He earned NCAA All-America honors in 1994.
He earned his Juris doctorate degree from OU in 1997. While in law school, he attended the 1995 summer law program at Oxford University – Queens College, Oxford, England.
Prior to joining the University of Oklahoma staff in 2006, Leonard was a partner with his wife, Jana, at Leonard & Associates law firm in Oklahoma City. Their law practice focuses on employment law. He is admitted to practice in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Western District of Oklahoma, Northern District of Oklahoma, Eastern District of Oklahoma, and the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. He is a member of the Oklahoma County Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association.
His wife also has strong ties to the OU. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and her J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.