An inside look at the NCAA's secretive Committee on Infractions
For three days beginning on Thursday, a 10-person NCAA committee will convene in a conference room at a hotel in Tempe, Ariz. There are more than 125 NCAA committees that meet during a calendar year and this one is no different in that its members are largely unrecognizable collegiate bureaucrats. The NCAA Web site lists three attorneys, three law professors, two conference commissioners and two athletic department officials as members of this committee, and while some of them played or coached collegiate sports, none have done so in the past 20 years.
The NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball are dictatorships when it comes to penalizing its members; a single person decides on sanctions. The NCAA has this group of 10, known as the Committee on Infractions (COI), one of the most powerful, yet least examined, entities in American sports. Most people could not name a single member of the COI or tell you how it comes to its decisions. It goes about its business in relative obscurity, its deliberations kept secret, its findings conveyed mostly via press releases. Rarely has so little been known about a group that wields such authority.
The spotlight rarely finds the COI, which makes the hearing in Tempe unique. Among the cases under review is the biggest to come before the committee in years, one that will bring media attention and fan scrutiny:
The NCAA has investigated allegations against the Trojans athletic department since 2006, one of the longest probes in the association's history. The possibility of major sanctions for the school has loomed in the background for years, the bane of its supporters and a beacon for its critics. Allegations include claims that 2005 Heisman Trophy winner
Given the profile of the school and the athletes involved it is a landmark case, one sure to stand as a litmus test for the NCAA's unique brand of justice. It also raises questions about the mysterious committee that acts as the NCAA's judge: Who are the members of the COI and how did they land on the committee? How do they review allegations like those against USC? And, perhaps most important, how do they determine what penalties, if any, to hand down?
The NCAA does not disclose the individuals who will hear a specific case, and it is common for COI members to miss a hearing and/or be replaced by a former member. Still, it is a safe bet that those judging USC in Tempe will boast impressive credentials. The COI chairperson,
Per NCAA guidelines, two of the 10 members must be women and three are "public" representatives, usually attorneys or former judges unaffiliated with a school or conference. The three public representatives on the COI roster are all lawyers, the most notable being
Among the individuals judging USC will be
Hearings are closed to the public, transcripts of the proceedings are kept confidential, and COI members are forbidden from discussing cases. But Potuto's grilling of former basketball Georgia coach
When recruiting COI members, Potuto looked for people with "gravitas," which she says includes fearlessness in the face of a challenge from a high-profile coach or administrator. "My experience with Jo and the rest of the committee is that they want to be fair, but they won't do an institution any favors and they dig down pretty deep," says
That Potuto will review a high profile case involving agents funneling money to athletes is fitting, as it was her comments on that issue that brought her to the attention of the COI. At a
The most common way to get on the committee is to know someone on it or to impress when representing a school. Alabama law professor
COI members will tell you it is a thankless (and unpaid) job. They meet, on average, six times a year for four days at a time. Each case requires about 20 hours of reading and a complex hearing like USC's can last 12 hours or more. "There are plenty of people who get on the committee and pull the rip cord early because they don't realize the time commitment required," Marsh says.
Not Potuto. Her longevity and embrace of the work stands out. Followers of the committee say anonymously that if they could grant her a lifetime appointment (members are limited to three, three-year terms) they would, and they predict that she will loom large during the proceedings in Tempe.
For that, USC has, coincidentally, the rule book to blame.
COI guidelines require a committee member to recuse his or herself when a school from the same conference is under scrutiny. Potuto's final term ended in 2008, but she was asked back for the USC case, likely as a replacement for Oregon law professor
In other words, the toughest person in the room wasn't even supposed to be there.
Prior to arriving in Tempe, Potuto and the rest of the COI received a case file detailing the infractions the NCAA enforcement staff has concluded were committed by USC, as well as any response by the school. This could be called evidence -- it often includes transcripts of interviews and other supporting documents -- but the COI rarely determines whether or not a rule was broken, a common misconception. By the time a school appears before the COI it is usually in agreement with the enforcement staff on the violations committed. USC officials (who declined to discuss their case with SI.com) might take exception to the severity of some violations, but the two parties are likely to agree on the rules broken.
"One misconception is that a [COI hearing] is like a trial we would see in our judicial system," says Rogers. "It is very different." In an interview, Dee, the COI chairperson, referred to the process as "quasi-judicial" and "in a way like arbitration" and similar to an "administrative hearing," the variety of descriptors a testament to the unique nature of the COI's work.
Interpret may be the best description for what the committee does. They review the violations and then, while listening to remarks from school officials and others, they interpret the core cause of the misdeeds and whether the university's actions before and after the wrongdoing surfaced were sufficient. Thus, the task of the school officials present at a hearing is to push their own interpretation.
In the Florida State case, university president
At the start of a hearing, the school under review and the NCAA enforcement staff make opening remarks. Then the COI members pose questions, and it is during this period when cases are won and lost. Depending on who is among the contingent from USC (former football coach
The enforcement division's exact findings regarding USC won't be made public until after the COI's decision, but the committee is expected to conclude that Bush and Mayo received improper benefits from agents. Regarding Mayo, the school did an inadequate job monitoring the basketball program, a supposition supported by the university's imposition of sanctions on the basketball team in December, including a postseason ban this season. The school allowed
USC's interpretation of violations committed by football players would appear to be very different. Garrett, the Trojans' athletic director, said last month that the school had "some arguments" to make before the COI on that front. He is not likely to challenge that rules were broken but rather whether USC should be held responsible for the actions of Bush, his family, and the agents.
It is a defense that hits at a thorny issue for the NCAA: how much to hold schools accountable for the actions of the agents who court its players? On one hand, it is unreasonable to expect a school to monitor where all of its athletes' families live, what their parents drive and whom they might be receiving money from? On the other, Bush was not just any player, and it appears the agents operated right under USC's nose. According to
Many major infractions cases often come down to simple question -- what should the school have known? In Florida State's case, the school avoided the dreaded "lack of institutional control" label, which carries the harshest sanctions, and USC will hope do the same while in the tricky position of arguing that there were institutional failings in one sport (basketball) but not in another (football).
"It is a hard sell," says one lawyer with ties to the case. "It's the "what-more-could-we-do defense, and the problem with that is what a school could have done is open to a wide interpretation."
A widely held perception about the COI is that they go soft on cheaters, particularly high-profile schools. Pick any major infractions case from the last decade -- Ohio State in 2006, Alabama in 2002 and 2008, etc. -- and you can find a large segment of people that think the cheaters got off too easy and that the COI selectively spared a big (and profitable) program.
Potuto, Dee and others say that is folly. They judge a case on its merits, they contend, the profile of a school never comes under consideration. And yet it is hard not to note that the NCAA may have already done USC a huge favor.
In July 2008, the COI recommended sweeping changes in the severity of penalties assessed, including giving the COI the ability to impose postseason bans, hefty fines, bans on television appearances, and other penalties that hadn't been used in years. There were other recommendations, which when taken in total meant a seismic overhaul of how the NCAA penalizes cheaters.
A case like USC's, where the finding of a lack of institutional control is a real possibility, would seemingly be ripe for the deployment of the new penalties, and the perfect way to send a message to the rest of the association. "When people realize there is not a risk of severe penalties, they take chances," Dee says. "We wanted to put risk back on the table by dusting off some of these dormant penalties."
One problem: They are still dormant. Nearly 20 months after receiving the COI's recommendations, the Board of Directors has yet to ratify them. The COI may wish to throw the book at USC, but its hands will be tied by the slow-turning wheels of the NCAA machine. As a result, questions about whether justice was served will persist regardless of how the COI rules on the Trojans.
"The porridge will always be too hot or too cold," says Marsh, the Alabama law professor and former COI chair. "Some believe we are too harsh, others say too soft. No one ever says [the COI] got it just right."
At the conclusion of the hearing in Tempe, the COI will gather and begin talking through the issues until a consensus is reached on what penalties, if any, to hand down. Dee will then assign one member to write an opinion, which will be passed among the others to approve. The process takes about between eight to 10 weeks, meaning that sometime in the spring USC will know its fate. On that day, the debate over whether justice was served will rage on radio shows, blogs, and at water coolers across the country.
The COI, meanwhile, will drift back into the shadows.