WASHINGTON -- For nearly three hours yesterday, a panel of college administrators and legal scholars listened to every complaint under the chandelier about the inner workings of the infractions and enforcement arms of the NCAA.
At the end, committee members stood up and said, "Thank you."
Gripes not only were tolerated, but they also were welcomed at yesterday's open hearing of the Special Committee to Review the NCAA Enforcement and Infractions Process.
The committee has a broad charge. It was formed to address a myriad of questions that have dogged the NCAA system of identifying and punishing rules offenders. Is NCAA justice even-handed? Do investigations drag on too long? Are penalties too lax? Too harsh?
Yesterday, 10 witnesses -- college coaches, administrators and other sports experts -- took a whack at these questions. Many said the process is working, although not perfectly.
University of Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley was not shy. When he was football coach at his school, he met with NCAA investigators. Dooley said some are "suspicious, cynical, combative and believe you are guilty."
Dooley said schools that cheat innocently are lumped with others that blatantly disregard rules, and he blamed the NCAA for a lot of this.
"The NCAA should have a PR branch that does a better job putting out the truth," he said.
Others came with blueprints for improving the process.
Michael Slive, commissioner of the Great Midwestern Conference and an attorney who has represented more than a dozen schools during NCAA investigations, offered a comprehensive plan for reforming the system. Several points hinge on Slive's contention that universities should be given more of a chance to help solve their own problems.
For instance, Slive suggested that university presidents be notified immediately when their schools are under investigation. Now, they must wait weeks, sometimes months, before formal notification.
Slive called for the NCAA to appoint an independent magistrate or referee to supervise individual cases and, when possible, to expedite them.
Also, he suggested "early exits," or plea bargains, to be an option for schools that admit to their violations and want to avoid a full-blown NCAA probe, which often can last more than a year.
"I would think if we had that [plea bargain] available, it might dispose of 30 to 50 percent of the cases," Slive said.
Despite their concerns, many witnesses said they thought cheating was down appreciably in the past 10 years and that coaches better understood and valued the rules.
"When I look at the system in 1991, I see very little cheating," said Kentucky football coach Bill Curry. "I see a high regard for integrity. I see young men getting drug-free educations. By and large, I see cheaters being fired and not rehired."
"Ninety-five percent of the coaches have the highest moral fiber; only 5 percent are undesirables," said Southern Cal basketball coach George Raveling, "and they cause 95 percent of the problems."
The special committee cannot make rules changes. But it will report its finding (probably in October) to the NCAA Council, which is expected to write legislation on this topic for the 1993 NCAA Convention.
If nothing else, the 11 committee members give reason to hope for good results. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger is one, and he was present for yesterday's hearing. Baltimore attorney Benjamin Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general, also serves on the panel.
Few of the comments they heard yesterday were new or radically different from those the committee members have discussed before. But Rex Lee, the president of Brigham Young University and the panel's chairman, said the exercise had been useful anyway.
"To a rather surprising extent, things we are thinking about were reinforced today," Lee said.