The Committee on Infractions has become the last line of defense in holding the NCAA’s members accountable. An inside look at how the group operates.
LAS VEGAS—If you are a college coach or administrator, this is the last room you should want to be in, defending yourself against allegations of NCAA rules violations. Your career may be on the line. Your university may be facing harmful penalties.
Arrayed around a square table setting in a conference room at the J.W. Marriott Resort and Spa here are most of the 24 members of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions. This is the group that holds hearings on major infractions cases, issues rulings and administers sanctions. There are some major distinctions, but this is the college sports version of a courtroom and the people seated around the square are both judge and jury.
But the committee members themselves may also question their presence here. These are smart and accomplished people who are volunteering—as in, for free—their time and brainpower for what can be tedious and contentious work. Their rulings will inevitably be the object of scorn and derision from fans and media members. Their integrity and impartiality will be called into question. Complex decisions will be reduced to simplistic rationales. There is a chance they will personally receive insulting and threatening correspondence.
“It’s tough work,” says NCAA vice president Jon Duncan, whose Enforcement department presents cases to the COI. “It’s time consuming. It’s a thankless job. That’s why I always tell them that I appreciate their service.”
They know their reputation: “The biggest misconceptions are that we’re too slow and we’re inconsistent,” COI chair Dave Roberts says. “That’s what I hear all the time.”
They know they’ve been tagged as the henchmen for a monolith that exists to squash innocent athletes: “If you don’t sit in these chairs every day, we’re seen as the bad guys, those people behind the door,” says Kendra Greene, senior associate athletic director at North Carolina Central.
Sports Illustrated and one other media outlet were granted unprecedented access to Committee on Infractions members last week—to interview them and hear their conversations around the COI’s role in the evolving, turbulent college athletics landscape. Attire was casual and interaction was collegial, but there were robust conversations about general infractions topics, some differences of opinion, and a lot of sweating of small details. Everyone had a microphone at their disposal and most everyone used it to chime in.
So, my first question: Why would a university president, a high-level conference administrator or an accomplished jurist sign up for this gig? Who volunteers to dive into a complicated task and issue a thoughtful ruling, only to emerge for a public flogging?
Former University of Northern Colorado president Kay Norton: “How can a university, given its mission of serving and changing and transforming the lives of its students, have a Division I athletic program that meshes with that mission? That’s why I find this work fascinating … can we fulfill this mission at the Division I level, and how?”
Retiring Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Richard Ensor: “The enterprise is at a crossroads right now. There is so much revenue falling into certain elements of the membership that we have to really think about how we’re going to manage the enterprise. How can we do it in a fair and equitable manner?”
Army executive associate athletic director Tricia Turley Brandenburg, who got her start in college sports at the campus rules compliance level: “I wanted to be part of the solution.”
Former Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt: “The bedrock of coaching and athletics in general is consistency and fairness. I think there needs to be a voice in all of the organizations to represent those coaches.”
Greene, who works at an HBCU: “I want to be a voice for the smaller institutions.”
Their answers reflect an idealism and communal ownership that can seem quaint, even naive, in the cynical, every-school-for-itself “real world” the COI seeks to make sense of. But the committee members represent a backbone of support for the collegiate sports model. Not necessarily the outdated, amateurism-based model, but one that exists within the framework of higher education and is not wholly devoted to gigantism and revenue.
“I think this is a critical time in this industry, which is one reason I put my hand up to serve,” says Jim Stapleton, an attorney and former regent at Eastern Michigan University. “This group can really make a difference.”
NCAA rules governance is one of those topics people love to debate but don’t really want to understand. They see rulings that don’t make sense, or seemingly contradict earlier rulings. They see a rival school receiving a lighter ruling while theirs is hammered. They ascribe motives.
All of that is easier than wading too far into the dense, wonky bog of rules and regulations.
This is the structure the NCAA has created for itself, a byproduct of attempting to regulate fair play for hundreds of disparate universities in dozens of sports. Bureaucracies breed complexity, and sports are supposed to be rather simple: the best team wins and earns the spoils of victory. It’s the cheating to create the best team that makes it complicated.
“Everyone’s for strict enforcement and tough rules until they’re applied to them,” Norton says. “This is simply human nature. We have to walk a tightrope over that abyss.”
The various ways in which schools will attempt to get ahead of their competitors is where the NCAA rules manual comes into play, and with it the NCAA Enforcement staff and ultimately the Committee on Infractions. Those folks are the last line and get the last word.
They’re the tightrope walkers. And they volunteer to walk over the abyss.
The COI likely had a major new addition to the docket with Tuesday’s news that the NCAA reached a bifurcated ruling in a Tennessee football infractions case. Four former staff members have agreed to penalties, while former head coach Jeremy Pruitt and the institution itself appear headed for a contested hearing in front of the committee. The timing is unclear, but a ruling could impact the Volunteers’ 2023 football season.
The particulars aren’t known, but it stands to reason that the penalties NCAA Enforcement are looking to apply to Pruitt and Tennessee are significant. The case involves 18 Level I allegations, the most serious in the NCAA hierarchy, and the violations are brazen: cash payments from staffers to recruits and their families stemming from visits during the COVID-19 dead period.
Pruitt could be facing a lengthy show-cause penalty that keeps him from coaching in college for up to five years. Tennessee could be facing a range of sanctions that includes a postseason ban. Both coach and school are disputing whatever findings the Enforcement staff has reached.
These are the kinds of powder keg cases the COI must adjudicate. Sometimes its rulings enrage a fan base. Sometimes they enrage the Enforcement staff itself with lenient punishments. Most cases that reach the COI’s doorstep come with high stakes attached.
The easier (or less contentious) stuff usually is resolved before coming to a contested hearing. Fifty-three cases ended in negotiated resolutions, with 50 of the original agreements accepted by the COI. The remaining 20 cases were contested before the COI. (The only times a negotiated resolution is rejected are when the findings are deemed to not be in the best interests of the association.)
The COI would be fine with an increase in negotiated resolutions and a decrease in contested hearings, if for no other reason than efficiency of processing cases. But the complex cases are once again the sole province of the committee, with the NCAA shuttering its ill-fated Independent Accountability Review Process as soon as it finishes its final two cases (Kansas and LSU men’s basketball). The COI members did not offer specific thoughts on the IARP’s work on rulings for Arizona, Louisville, North Carolina State and Memphis, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone within the entire NCAA leadership who will miss that disastrous adjudicative experiment.
“The IARP process was an adversarial process, and the process has gone away,” says Jason Leonard, executive director of athletics compliance at Oklahoma and a COI member. “It didn’t work within the membership because this is supposed to be a collaborative process.”
For the vast majority of the contested COI hearings, the most time-consuming elements have either happened before a ruling or will happen after. The investigative process can be lengthy and is often delayed by a school or individual who is in Enforcement crosshairs. (Check the timeline of the ongoing LSU men’s basketball case with the IARP and you will see a study in stall ball from former coach Will Wade.) And an appealed ruling also can take months of relitigating key points.
The hearings themselves are not the stuff of a Law & Order episode. COI members described them as “collegial,” largely fact-based and with almost all information available beforehand to all parties. There aren’t many “gotcha” moments.
“For those of us who were or are lawyers, it’s not like that,” Norton says. “Everyone on the committee has read the record, is fully informed, and we have bench memos from staff. So the presentations … don’t have a lot of drama.”
In recent years, penalties have skewed away from athletes, particularly avoiding penalizing players who were in high school when a violation occurred. The more frequent targets have become coaches, administrators and boosters, although even in that area the COI or IARP has notably gone easy on some leaders. Bill Self, Rick Pitino, Sean Miller and Anfernee Hardaway all were (or are) embroiled in major cases, and might be coaching unencumbered in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
One of the major talking points amid the wave of rulings stemming from the federal probe of corruption in college basketball is the disappearance of postseason bans. Norton, for one, cautions not to read too much into that.
“The postseason ban is a core penalty now, and indications we’ve heard are that it’s going to remain a core penalty, although maybe it’s only applied in the most egregious cases,” Norton says. “But it is one of the more effective penalties in terms of punishment.”
Will it be on the table in a contested Tennessee hearing? That remains to be seen.