In new college sports world, what is role of NCAA committee on infractions?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The hotel conference room where the NCAA committee on infractions gathers on a recent weekday holds the structural vibe of a United Nations meetings. At the core of the COI, the jury of peers for the NCAA's enforcement department's investigations, they are attempting to keep the peace in college athletics.

In these uncertain times, that is a noble and elusive aspiration.

There are about two dozen people gathered in a conference room coincidentally named for the group's attempted ethos -- Fairway Ballroom. There are black microphone stands poised in front of each member, and video conferencing screens and cameras in the middle.

The NCAA committee on infractions is a sober group of about 25 current and former college athletics administrators and outside legal professionals. They include a former commissioner, a sitting judge, a former coach, a current college president and some sitting athletic directors.

They have taken a volunteer job at one of the more unpopular arms of a generally unpopular organization -- they are people who love college sports and seek fairness and competitive balance in them. They note the perks of the conversational currency at cocktail parties, but the reality is they are dedicated to fair process and see this as an avenue to practice that notion. Even in an environment where their work will likely only be noticed when it's criticized.

They joke liberally that the compensation -- they are not paid -- is not the allure. They are keenly aware of public sentiment, but press on idealistically to uphold fairness.

"You have to have some rules," said Kay Norton, the president emerita of Northern Colorado, who serves as the COI chair.

The NCAA gave ESPN a look last week at, generally, how the COI works. And they opened up the committee for questions and insight about both why they've volunteered and where they think infractions -- and punishments -- are going.

The discussion was deliberate and thoughtful, with few definitive conclusions in a rapidly changing environment.

NCAA rules have long lived a paradoxical existence. They are decided upon by member schools who complain about them frequently without acknowledging their complicity in their creation. Generally, there's a spirit that the rules should be enforced rigorously, until a school is in trouble and suddenly finds the process and results burdensome.

The NCAA is criticized for an onerous rulebook, but it's one created in part because the amateur environment fostered a rich history of creative cheating. There's the deluge of criticism that comes immediately after a deliberate investigative and COI process, the protracted timeline of which often leaves everyone in the crosshairs.

These days, with amateurism disappearing in the high-profile sports and judicial decisions rapidly accentuating that reality, there's still a baseline reality to the COI.

"We're going to have to have rules," said Jason Leonard, the executive director of compliance at Oklahoma, echoing Norton.

And that notion -- perfectly rational considering there are no lawless professional sports -- comes with the challenge for an NCAA process that's adjusting to new realities in college sports. That arrived with a flourish recently, allowing players to profit off their name, image and likeness.

The COI must make decisions derived from an organization long tied to amateurism that's becoming professionalized in front of our eyes.

So a conundrum exists, as evidenced by a recent court ruling on NIL and popular sentiment: How do you fairly enforce rules when the rules keep changing?

At a time of perhaps unprecedented saber-rattling about the future structure of college athletics, consistent legal losses for the NCAA and big conference muscle flexes, the historically clunky NCAA infractions process is at a crossroads.

"There are more incentives to not comply [to rules] than there ever have been," Norton said.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who comes from a compliance background and serves on the infractions process committee (which is different than the COI), told ESPN that the COI is filled with well-meaning and good intentioned folks, but hopes there's an acknowledgement that "the ground has shifted."

Sankey told ESPN recently: "These discussions are always about more penalties. What we need are better strategies. Rather than pursuing cases right now, what we need is time and energy focusing on solving our bigger problems."

The enforcement process will march on, even after a judge's ruling in Tennessee last week that undercuts the NCAA's ability to enforce NIL rules.

So what are reasonable punishments for schools and athletes who get caught breaking the rules? That's been the long-standing tension that's an ongoing discussion for the group. "The committee on infractions doesn't make the rules, they follow the rules, as set forth by the membership," Leonard said.

The latest set came in January, with little fanfare. (NCAA rules usually find the spotlight upon application, rarely introduction.)

They included additional punishments for schools hiring a coach with a show-cause order, a once-damning penalty that has softened in perception parallel to the public skepticism of the NCAA and its rules.

Others included naming individuals in cases, expanding the scope of suspensions for coaches to potentially include practices as well as games and expanding disassociation penalties for boosters involved in violations.

Among those discussed in the meeting last week included penalizing athletic directors and even presidents in enforcement cases. They also discussed and generally upheld the notion of vacating records.

Norton said vacating records is "winding its way through the governance process" as a potential core penalty, which means it'd be expected to be issued in certain cases.

That penalty has been criticized for taking away something that's already happened, but the tone of the COI was, essentially, that it's one of the few penalties they have left.

"One reason that we have advocated that so strongly has been because that is the one penalty in our arsenal that addresses the behavior at the time that it occurred," Norton said.

Essentially, with bowl bans from the COI still available but increasingly rare and steering away from penalties that hurt current athletes at the school who were not involved in any wrongdoing, there's not a lot left for the COI in terms of heavy penalties.

A follow-up question about the "arsenal" of potential punishments prompted a joke from Norton that the COI is dealing with more of a "quiver."

And that led to a tidy summation of the "nearly impossible" task of finding a fair punishment, according to Missouri Valley deputy commissioner Jill Redmond.

"I would say 'no' to having enough in our arsenal as an association," she said in the meeting. "We don't have subpoena power, so in some circumstances we don't know the full set of facts, and then it's hard to [figure] what is the right punishment? You've got student athletes that I would say accept benefits and do things that they know are not appropriate, and they know that there are consequences, but we don't want to punish a team because the team also has innocent student athletes.

"You've got programs that don't follow the rules, but then they also don't want to face those consequences. But what do we do for the programs that are compliant? To me, it's nearly impossible to issue a penalty and not somehow impact somebody in a disparate way when they didn't do anything wrong."

Just like the cries to end the NCAA come with the reality that a new governing body would need to emerge, any new iteration of college sports would still need an enforcement arm and a body to find out fair punishment for rules.

"Our coaches want rules, and there's going to have to be a body that enforces those rules regardless of if it's at a conference level or at the NCAA level," Leonard said. "So I don't see that changing ever in college athletics. There'll be some set of rules."

Norton summed up the reality nicely: "If we didn't exist," she said, "they'd have to invent us."