An inside look at the NCAA's secretive Committee on Infractions
USC will go before NCAA's COI Thursday for football and basketball violations
A look at who is on the committee, how it operates and decides a school's fate
After a decision is made, it will take 8-10 weeks to find out USC's penalties
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 Reggie Bush received improper benefits from multiple agents, including the use of a house for his family. Former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo, in his one season with the Trojans, also reportedly received money and gifts from an agent, and, most recently, investigators looked into a car driven by but not owned by running back Joe McKnight.
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, Paul Dee, is the former athletic director at Miami and a professor at that school. Britton Banowsky and Dennis Thomas are the commissioners of Conference USA and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, respectively, and Missy Conboy has worked in Notre Dame's athletic department for 22 years. Temple law professor Eleanor Myers is an expert on legal ethics, and Rodney Uphoff, a professor at Missouri, is a former defense attorney who helped represent Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.
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 Roscoe Howard Jr., a former U.S. Attorney.
Among the individuals judging USC will be Josephine Potuto, a tiny woman with red hair who teaches law at the University of Nebraska. (She confirmed to SI.com that she would be Tempe.) Potuto might be the smallest person in the room, but she will also be the most senior, having served on the committee since 1999. She is the person USC athletic director Mike Garrett, school president Steven Sample, and the others representing the school should fear the most as she is a fierce questioner and unafraid to call out school officials who attempt to massage the truth.
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 Jim Harrick in 2004 is legendary among followers of the COI, and in a 2008 Florida State hearing -- the transcript from which was transmitted to the university in a way that made it subject to open record laws -- she repeatedly cornered those defending the school.