Eligibility is a very important part of being a student-athlete. As coaches, we have to make sure that the best support system is in place to help our student-athletes succeed in the classroom. It is vital that the support team consist of the coach, parents & guidance counselors at the high school. Between these three people, it must be understood that everyone is educated on what it takes to become academically eligible to play collegiate sports. Ali Fitzgerald is a former assistant athletic director of NCAA compliance and eligibility at Manhattan College. Below is our recent interview. Enjoy.
Me: What is your background in working with college athletics?
Ali: When I started the sports law program at Marquette University, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work in college athletics or professional athletics. Through my studies and internships, I found a home in NCAA Compliance. The most significant experience I had was a summer internship at the NCAA Office of Government Relations in DC. That office is basically the lobbying arm of the NCAA. I was able to attend hearings at the Capitol on athlete agent issues and drug testing in athletics. That whole experience made me understand and appreciate the over-arching issues that affect college athletics.
Upon graduation in May 2008, I accepted a job at the University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS) to help lead their transition from an NAIA institution to NCAA Division II. After two years at UIS (and a successful transition to the NCAA Division II), I accepted a job at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. Barry University is another Division II institution. After four wonderful years there, I accepted a job at Division I Manhattan College in Bronx, NY.
Me: What were your specific roles at those colleges and universities?
Ali: At each institution, my job title was the same: Assistant Director of Athletics for Compliance and SAAC Advisor; however, my responsibilities grew with each position. My first position at UIS was unique since I was leading the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II. UIS had an assigned mentor team through the NCAA, which was invaluable in learning how to do everything the right way from start to finish. I was also the advisor to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), which is a committee made up of at least two representatives from each team. SAAC would meet once a month (more if necessary) to discuss issues that affected them as students and to problem-solve ways to make their experience better.
Although my job title was the same at Barry University, I also had a lot more game management and special event responsibilities. All four of the athletic directors split game management responsibilities, so that there was coverage at each home event.
Finally, at Manhattan College, I held the same responsibilities as the previous two institutions, just multiplied and magnified. The pressure and expectations that come with working at a mid-major institution are so much greater because you are held to the same standards as all other Division I institutions without the same amount of funding, resources, and staff. It was truly an all hands on deck environment.
Me: What made you decide to pursue a career in working with student-athletes?
Ali: During my undergrad at UW-Madison, I had a lot of academic interests, but I didn’t know how I could translate that into a career. While meeting with my advisor, he asked me about all of my interests and suggested that I go to law school and become a sports agent. As an 18 year old freshman, it seemed pretty logical to me. I continued my studies with the goal of going to law school. While researching law schools, I discovered the Sports Law program at Marquette University law school. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to pursue a career within athletics, but I knew that the Sports Law program would help me get there (and it did).
Given the fact that I worked at three smaller institutions, I was able to have a lot of contact with student-athletes. Because of my role as the SAAC advisor, I also gained a different perspective about issues that were important to them. The student-athletes became such a source of inspiration for me. They’re simply incredible. I wanted them to understand that they have a very important voice within the world of college athletics. I didn’t always agree with NCAA legislation and rules, but knowing that I could help make the student-athlete experience better on each campus allowed me to keep working hard. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I just thought, “if I don’t do this, then the students will suffer the most.”
Me: Why is it important that coaches and student-athletes are educated on NCAA compliance and eligibility?
Ali: NCAA compliance and eligibility is incredibly complicated. There are rules, exceptions to rules, appeals, waivers, and an ever-changing world of interpretations. For the majority of student-athletes, they will fit neatly into eligibility standards. However, it’s those student-athletes who have a unique educational background, or specific life circumstances, that require extra help to meet those eligibility standards. It doesn’t mean that they are any less worthy of earning a scholarship or competing, but the difference is often in how well that specific institution’s Director of Compliance knows the rules – and knows how to help their students-athletes make the rules work for them.
In my experience, compliance “departments” are incredibly under-staffed (I was always a staff of one), which makes it really hard to support students with higher needs. In these instances, we (Compliance professionals) depend on the help of our coaches to be our compliance assistants and help monitor academic eligibility. It truly does take a village.
Me: What advice would you have for coaches that are helping their student-athletes pursue opportunities at the collegiate level?
Ali: First, I would encourage all high school student-athletes to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center by the start of their junior year in high school. For domestic students, the NCAA will do a preliminary evaluation of the most up-to-date transcripts and test scores. A lot of prospective student-athletes are worried that they will receive a preliminary “nonqualifier” status because their transcripts are incomplete, which will in turn make them seem less attractive during the recruiting process.
On the contrary, the NCAA can do a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the PSA is on track to be a qualifier. If there are red flags, then the hope is that they can be addressed before the PSA graduates. There are a lot of other little pieces of advice that I would offer, but I really think that this step is the most overlooked. When a coach is recruiting a student-athlete, the Athletic Directors will often ask, “Will he/she be a qualifier?” Knowing that the PSA is being proactive about their eligibility only helps during the recruiting process.
Me: Ali, thank you for your time.
Ali: I am very excited about participating in the MCA Coaching Clinic. There is much more to discuss along the lines of eligibility and compliance. I think that there will be some very important and useful information for all of the coaches in attendance. Looking forward to it and thank you for having me.