COLUMBIA -- This morning in Los Angeles, representatives of the University of South Carolina will walk into a conference room and meet with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, a group of 10 men and women who will deliver a verdict for USC's major violations of NCAA rules.
But these meetings, which can last all day and into the night, only slightly resemble a court of law. Their dialogue is more free-flowing with no witnesses called, and they are not open to the public. They are, however, no less stressful for most people involved -- from the accused to the committee members themselves.
In September, the NCAA charged USC with three major violations -- for athletes receiving impermissiblydiscounted rates at a Columbia hotel, two USC graduates giving athletes and recruits improper benefits, and USC failing to monitor both situations, which resulted in athletes receiving $55,000 of improper benefits.
Three months later, USC responded to the NCAA and acknowledged that the violations occurred in its football program in 2009 and 2010. The school did not contest the allegations and punished itself by reducing football scholarships and putting itself on three years of NCAA probation.
Now, the Committee on Infractions will decide if it agrees with those sanctions, or if it wants to deliver more. Its decision should be announced in six to eight weeks. Though some observers question the NCAA's system of justice and the modern-day applicability of its amateurism rules, committee members do not take their responsibility at these meetings lightly.
"The committee approaches it that these are deadly serious issues for the institution," said Tom Yeager, the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, who was an NCAA rules investigator in the 1970s, sat on the Committee on Infractions from 1997-2006 and served as its chairman from 2001-04.
Yeager estimated he participated in 100 major violations cases during his time on the committee. He said committee members receive no information about a case until the NCAA sends a school a notice of allegations. At USC, that happened in September.
When Yeager received a notice, he started a file on a case. It grew exponentially when a school responded to the NCAA. At that point, each committee member receives the documents related to the response.
"We'd joke about whether it came in one box or two boxes," Yeager said.
The committee comprises volunteers, many with a legal background, who conduct six, two-day sessions per year, always on Friday and Saturday, usually hearing one case each day. Yeager prepared for hearings by combing through the box of documents, highlighting passages and marking pages with sticky notes.
Hearings used to be held the weekend after the Super Bowl, and for years, Yeager's Super Bowl Sunday routine involved notebooks and papers strewn across his kitchen table, a break to watch a few minutes of the game, then returning to combing through the documents and his notes.
"That's the kind of time commitment it requires," he said.
About three weeks before the hearing, the NCAA rules enforcement staff and a representative of the accused school meet to discuss what allegations they agree and disagree about. The "points of contention" are recorded in a case summary given to the committee, "so we can get to the real issues," Yeager said. "Otherwise, these cases would take forever (at the hearings)."
At the hearings, the NCAA enforcement staff presents the allegations one at a time, then the school and any individuals involved (such as a coaches) respond. Committee members can interrupt to ask questions at any time. Unlike a criminal trial, a school has an obligation to cooperate and cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment, or only have its attorney speak.
But schools take NCAA violations so seriously that they hire attorneys who specialize in handling these cases. At today's hearing, USC's 11 representatives, including its general counsel, will be joined by William King, who represented North Carolina in October when it answered the committee's questions about major violations in its football program.
"It kind of proceeds like an open discussion," said Scott Tompsett, an attorney who has defended schools and coaches in NCAA cases for 22 years. "It's not like you see at a trial. It's much less formal than that. There's a lot of give and take."
The discussion lets committee members get a read on the accused school in a way they couldn't get just from reading its response to the allegations.
"In many cases, credibility (of the accused) is an issue," Tompsett said. "That's something that is not as easily evaluated just on paper submission."
The back-and-forth continues until all the allegations are covered. There is no time limit, but a hearing usually runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m., with a lunch break, Tompsett said. Some of his cases have lasted until 11 p.m., which makes the snack and beverage cart often found in the back of the conference room at Committee on Infractions hearings a welcome sight.
With so much at stake and the committee, and accused sitting with each other for so long, the dialogue sometimes becomes emotional.
"It can get heated," Tompsett said. "I wouldn't say that's the norm."
After the hearing ends, the committee deliberates about potential additional punishment. For USC, the committee might consider whether the school deserves harsher sanctions under the NCAA's "repeat violator" rule, which comes into play if a school commits violations within five years of starting a penalty for previous major rules infractions.
When "repeat violator" is heard in an opening statement at a hearing, "the committee's radar immediately comes up," Yeager said. But the committee strongly considers the similarities of the violations. USC received sanctions for its previous violations, which also involved football, in 2005. The violations involved athletes receiving impermissible tutoring sessions and offseason workouts.
In 2005, the committee added a year to USC's self-imposed two years of probation and cited the school for "lack of institutional control." In most cases, the final ruling the committee announces almost two months after a hearing is "pretty well buttoned-up" and decided in the deliberations immediately after the hearing, Yeager said.
Formalizing the decision just takes a while. A committee assistant who sat in the deliberations drafts a report, one committee member gets the first edit, the entire committee reviews it line-by-line on a conference call that can last two hours and the committee schedules a time with the school's president to publicly release the ruling.
From his office in Richmond, Va., Yeager said he hasn't followed USC's case. His days with the Committee on Infractions are long since finished. Despite all the hours he poured into the committee, and the Super Bowl Sundays he lost, he said he enjoyed the experience.
"At times," he said. "I think all of us that believe in the integrity of college athletics recognize that somebody's got to step up and be willing to serve. Was I disappointed when my term ran out? No, I wasn't. Would I have appreciated the additional free time? Yes, but I made a commitment to serve. I'd love to have recouped about 70 weekends that I committed to the process, but those are long gone."
USC'S SELF-IMPOSED PENALTIES
--Loss of one football scholarship in 2012, three in 2013 and two in 2014.
--Loss of three football scholarships from the incoming classes of 2013 and 2014.
--Reduction of football official recruiting visits from 56 to 30.
--Reduction of track and field official visits from unlimited to 50.
--Three years of probation.
--$18,500 fine paid to the NCAA for four football players who competed while ineligible in 2009.
--Demotion of compliance director Jennifer Stiles.
--Men's basketball assistant coach Mike Boynton prohibited from recruiting off campus in January 2012.
--Football assistant coach G.A. Mangus ineligible for bonuses in 2012-13 and a raise in 2013-14.
--Head track and field coach Curtis Frye prohibited from attending the 2012 Penn Relays and ineligible for bonuses in 2011-12 and a raise in 2012-13.
THE NCAA'S COMMITTEE ON INFRACTIONS
Kansas City-based attorney who has assisted sports-related non-profit organizations in implementing governance, rights protection and risk minimization.
Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former United States attorney. He focuses his practice on white-collar crime, corporate compliance and ethics issues.
Associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. He handles all compliance matters for the SEC. He is a former commissioner of the Southland Conference.
Commissioner of Conference-USA and former general counsel for the Big 12 and commissioner of the Southland Conference. He is the committee's chairman.
Senior deputy athletics director at Notre Dame. She oversees facilities, legal affairs and human resources. She served as an NCAA enforcement representative from 1985-87.
Law professor and faculty athletics representative at Oregon. His academic work involves constitutional history and theory, and legal philosophy, including environmental law.
Law professor and former criminal defense lawyer and public defender. He is Missouri's associate dean of academic affairs. He defended Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.
Commissioner of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. He is the former athletic director at Hampton and football coach at South Carolina State and Alcorn State. He was committee chairman before stepping down in September due to 'unforeseen personal reasons.'
Law professor and faculty athletics representative at Temple who specializes in professional responsibility and business. She is a former securities and anti-trust attorney.
A Tampa, Fla.-based attorney. His practice specializes in commercial litigation.
*Sankey might have to recuse himself and be replaced by a past committee member, because the NCAA prohibits a member from participating if he is 'directly connected with an institution under investigation or has a personal, professional or institutional affiliation that reasonably would result in the appearance of prejudice.' The NCAA declined to say if Sankey will recuse himself or who would replace him.