The process by which the NCAA determines which athletes are eligible to play, which programs have committed violations and which schools are put on probation takes place exclusively in private sessions. Yesterday, NCAA representatives had to publicly defend the process during a 90-minute hearing before the House Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who called the hearing, criticized NCAA officials for running an enforcement process that is closed to the public, one in which penalties are determined by a panel -- the NCAA's committee on infractions -- that is composed mostly of faculty from NCAA member schools.

During the sometimes contentious hearing, witnesses referred to the NCAA as a "cartel" and a "monopoly," leaving a member of the NCAA's committee on infractions to defend how the organization metes out penalties.

"Let's have public hearings," Bachus said. "Let's have an independent trier of the facts."

Josephine Potuto, the vice chair of the committee on infractions and a law professor at the University of Nebraska, strenuously argued that her group works within the framework of rules determined by NCAA members, that it is indeed impartial and that opening hearings to the public would lead to an unruly situation.

Potuto said the NCAA offers college athletes due process because any athlete who is accused of a violation but seeks reinstatement is allowed to testify before a committee and argue his or her case.

"An even playing field means more than an evenhanded and consistent application of the rules on the field," she said. "It also means an evenhanded and consistent application of the rules off the field."

Two witnesses strongly objected to Potuto's assertion. Jeremy Bloom, a world champion mogul skier and a former wide receiver at Colorado, cited the NCAA's ruling that the endorsement money he earned as a skier made him ineligible to play football. Bloom, who says he needs the endorsement money to continue training for the 2006 Olympics, said he objected to the make-up of the committee to whom he pleaded his case -- employees of NCAA member schools and conferences.

"They're the judge, the jury and the executioner," Bloom told the panel. He said afterward he was frustrated that he had to plead his case through the University of Colorado, which is an NCAA member.

"I thought that was unfair," Bloom said. "They're a member institution. It's like a district attorney advising an attorney that works in his office to represent the plaintiff in a dispute."

David Ridpath, an associate professor of sport administration at Mississippi State who once was a compliance officer at Marshall University, railed against the NCAA's enforcement operation. Ridpath is a member of the Drake Group, an organization of faculty from schools across the nation that wants to overhaul college athletics. Ridpath said the infractions hearings "absolutely must be open" to ensure the panel is held accountable for the way it acts.

"Do not do something behind closed doors," Ridpath said. "It's a shroud of secrecy that makes it seem like something's wrong."

Two former heads of the committee on infractions -- David Swank of Oklahoma University and Jack Friedenthal of George Washington University -- said in telephone interviews yesterday that the committee is as independent as it could possibly be. Two former judges who are not affiliated with any university currently sit on the committee, they said. They also said that opening hearings would be detrimental.

"This isn't a governmental matter," Friedenthal said. "It's a matter of people in a like industry getting together and deciding on how they run the show."

Bachus called the hearing in part because two schools from his home state, Alabama and Auburn, have been placed on probation by the NCAA within the past three years. Bachus, though, said he wanted to discuss the NCAA's process, not the particulars of the Alabama or Auburn cases. He took exception to a news release on the hearing issued Monday by the NCAA. The release specifically cited the Alabama and Auburn cases, which Bachus said was "an attempt to poison the atmosphere" by portraying it as a partisan endeavor.

Bachus also said that the NCAA placed calls to the offices of two committee members trying to get them to discourage Bloom from testifying. Wally Renfro, special assistant to NCAA President Myles Brand, denied that claim, and Bachus wouldn't reveal which committee members received calls.

Bachus, though, said he intended to monitor the situation.

"Government intervention is the only way to stop this trend," Ridpath said. "We're headed for a train wreck."

The panel's chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), concluded the hearing by saying he couldn't "say with any certainty where this might go." That dovetails with other Congressional hearings on college sports over the past year, in which various committees have heard about everything from recruiting overhauls to the Bowl Championship Series, yet haven't taken action.

"Any judicial body is going to be imperfect," Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said of the NCAA. "The question is: Should Congress act?"

BLOOM