The O.J. Mayo, left, and Reggie Bush cases epitomize an increasingly common… (Photos by Lori Shepler /…)
INDIANAPOLIS -- A few minutes into the interview, the NCAA's head of enforcement pauses to make himself clear.
"I'm not going to talk about specific cases," he says.
David Price has a policy about speaking publicly. In this instance, he refuses to discuss former USC athletes Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, both of whom are suspected of accepting extra benefits while in school.
The Bush investigation has stretched past two years and the Mayo case, launched in May, could extend into 2009, reviving questions about the NCAA's ability and even willingness to police its member schools.
Mindful of such criticisms, Price and several of his 29 investigators recently agreed to address -- in general terms -- how they respond to potential violations.
The interviews took place at NCAA headquarters, a four-story complex at the edge of downtown highlighted by a sunlit atrium and a Michael Graves-designed museum.
The offices feature an open design, workers dressed casually, but there was a clear sense of gravity. Price met with a reporter one on one; his staff faced questions as a group, gathered around a table in a small conference room. In both instances, a public relations representative sat nearby, taking notes.
"Our investigators are very much out there on the line," said Tom Hosty, an enforcement director. "They know they're being scrutinized."
The NCAA does catch flak from both sides: Although some say it has no teeth, others insist it is too tough, acting beyond the scope of law.
The allegations that trigger investigations reach Indianapolis through tips from rival coaches, disgruntled professors or even the Internet. Athletic departments hear of a potential violation and report it themselves, hoping to lessen subsequent penalties.
Any hint of trouble can send athletic directors, coaches and athletes scrambling for their attorneys, so about two-thirds of the investigators have legal degrees. But they do not act as prosecutors, serving only to gather information for the Committee on Infractions, which consists of representatives from member schools and the public.
With limited staff to oversee more than 1,000 member institutions, Price often asks schools to conduct the investigations themselves or at least help. The schools may use their own compliance offices or hire law firms staffed by former NCAA investigators.
The NCAA reviews each report and often re-interviews key figures. The Pacific 10 -- the only large conference that investigates major infractions -- might get involved if one of its schools is accused.
Still, skeptics wonder about letting the accused participate in the inquiry. They point out that the NCAA serves at the behest of university presidents and profits handsomely from television revenue generated by its best teams.
"Most people don't understand -- the NCAA is the schools themselves," said Arthur Fleisher III, co-author of "The National Collegiate Athletic Association: A Study in Cartel Behavior."
The Bush and Mayo cases epitomize an increasingly common situation, the NCAA chasing after marketers, financial consultants and runners, the shadowy figures who represent sports agents. This isn't like a coach handing over cash. These people operate on the fringe of college sports, where NCAA investigators have no subpoena power and no legal recourse against those who might lie.
Even the athletes -- Bush plays for the New Orleans Saints, Mayo for the Memphis Grizzlies -- no longer fall under NCAA authority.
Bush and his family, facing a civil lawsuit filed by one of the erstwhile marketers, informed NCAA investigator Angie Cretors they would not be talking any time soon.
"I guess the tone [NCAA investigators] used was kind of presumptuous, but that was easily dealt with," their attorney, David Cornwell, said. "We were very clear from the beginning with Ms. Cretors -- my focus would be on protecting the interests of Reggie and his parents."
Mayo has promised to cooperate but has yet to meet with the NCAA.
Current and former investigators said that when they cannot interview a targeted athlete, they compensate by approaching teammates and past coaches, neighborhood friends, anyone willing to talk.
Bob Minnix, who spent 20 years with the NCAA and now works for Washington State, explained in a separate interview: "I'll talk to your sister, your brother, your mother, until somebody tells me the truth. You've got the jilted girlfriend squealing on Joe because he dumped her for a cheerleader. Or the booster who squeals on a kid who chose another school."
Investigators might attempt to access bank or telephone records. They might interview classmates, asking about expensive clothes or new cars.
"If we can work around the edges, getting some information, then we leverage the people we haven't contacted and say here's some information we'd like you to respond to," said Julie Roe, an enforcement director. "That might motivate them to sit down and talk with us."