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Blue Ribbon Tips, College Sports, Division I, Education

Blue Ribbon Tips: Etienne Thomas (North Carolina Central University)

The Michael L. Buckner Law Firm continues its Blue Ribbon Tips series with insight from Etienne Thomas, North Carolina Central University associate athletics director for internal affairs/compliance/senior woman administrator. A Blue Ribbon Tips post contains athletically-related best practices, strategies and tips for administrators from NCAA member institutions and other higher-education professionals.

Ms. Thomas contends the most significant issues impacting athletics programs are:

  1. Budgets for athletics programs (on a national, system and campus basis):
    • Budget-related issues impact athletics operations and recruiting and effects “how we compete” (e.g., limit sports teams to compete regionally).
    • Schools that “have sponsors or foundation accounts” will not be impacted as severely, however.
    • Universities with funding issues will look to reduce spending in certain areas of recruiting. For example, limiting the number of prospects during official visits and relying more on technology (e.g., YouTube videos).
    • Some athletics departments may have to consider: whether or not to replace employees who leave in the middle of the year; whether “you can afford a big-name coach”; and whether the budget prohibits the expansion of coaching staffs
    • The arms race in college sports also means each school must “keep up with conference members” on a lot of financial issues (e.g., fully-funded scholarships).
  2. Academic Performance Report (APR):
    • Numerous schools will “struggle to meet 925/930” scores.
    • In fact, “storied programs are at risk” when the new increased minimum APR scores are in effect.
  3. Junior colleges (JUCOs) and prep schools:
    • Student-athletes from JUCOs and prep schools “allows us more flexibility as we deregulate”, but NCAA member institutions should “work with those schools to help prepare their students” to meet the rigors of university academic standee advantage of JUCO student-athletes is that they are “more mature” than freshmen student-athletes.

Ms. Thomas believes NCAA member institutions can rely on effective strategies to minimize high-profile rules-violations, including the following:

  1. Compliance staff must be “visible and present whenever opportunity presents itself”.
  2. Athletics staff should get to know student-athletes and their issues and needs.
  3. Communication (and not just rules-education) to all constituencies and third-parties (e.g., sports agents) is key to being proactive.
  4. Monitoring and information gathering mechanism (e.g., vehicle registration program).
  5. Establishing the institution’s compliance expectations and making third-parties aware of the expectations.

Finally, Ms. Thomas offers presidents, athletics directors and general counsel the following best-practices and tips:

  1. Allow athletics staff members to be involved in professional development activities (and not just the NCAA Regional Rules Seminar).
  2. Establish an information sharing program with other schools.
  3. Assist compliance staff with “getting in front of faculty, provost, leadership cabinet” and other senior campus leaders “to discuss NCAA issues (e.g., no favors for student-athlete by faculty)”.
  4. Ensure university general counsel is “in tune with athletics issues and athletically-related documents” (e.g., coaches contracts). Athletics directors, who generally do not possess legal experience, “are looking for general counsel insight” and not just a token response to questions.
  5. Be aware of NCAA enforcement issues.
  6. Conduct due-diligence on the new athletics hires and student-athletes.
  7. Remember NCAA “compliance touches everything” in the athletics program.
  8. Administrators must be “in tune with coaches and student-athletes” in order to be able to proactive decisions.
  9. Steer interested student-athletes into opportunities to be coaches and athletics administrators.
  10. Develop policies to address, and administrative understanding concerning, issues concerning transgender student-athletes and athletes with specific religious considerations.
  11. Enhance monitoring of coaches and student-athletes’ social-media. Ms. Thomas explained “we are on Facebook once a week checking on coaches” to ensure compliance with NCAA legislation. Further, Ms. Thomas believes “Skype opens up a new world” for compliance to monitor.
  12. Review the NCAA Guide for the College Bound Student Athlete because “a lot of NCAA compliance issues are in that book that are not in the NCAA Manual”.
  13. Use of “CAi and LSDBi is essential” to operating a comprehensive compliance program. Further, “before providing an interpretation, check LSDBi” for relevant interpretations and case-precedent.

Etienne Thomas Biography

Etienne Thomas joined the North Carolina Central University staff as the Associate Athletic Director for Internal Operations/Senior Woman’s Administrator in July of 2008

Thomas came to NCCU from San Jose State University where she served as the director of compliance. She added the duties of associate athletics director in July 2006. As a sports supervisor in the Spartans’ 16-sports program, she oversaw men’s and women’s soccer and softball.

Thomas’ background is rooted in compliance. She has worked at Howard University (2002-03) in Washington, D.C., Saint Paul’s College (2001-02) in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and at North Carolina Central University (2001-02). Her first position in athletics was as a compliance/general administration intern in the University of Iowa women’s athletics department.

The 1996 graduate of North Carolina Central University majored in political science. She has completed coursework for a J.D. degree from The University of Iowa College of Law.

Active in NCAA professional activities, she has served her universities as a delegate at the annual national convention. Thomas was an administrator at the 2004 NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Conference.

In 2006, she completed the 18-month NCAA Fellow Program.

Thomas holds memberships in the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA), the Black Coaches Association (BCA), the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), National Association of Athletics Compliance Coordinators (NAACC), and the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes (N4A).

She and her husband, Byron, currently reside in Morrisville, North Carolina.


About Michael L. Buckner, Esquire

An attorney who provides clients with internal investigation, civil litigation, estate planning and compliance services.


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