North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried talks with Dennis Smith Jr. (4) during action against Georgia Southern at the PNC Center in Raleigh, N.C., on November 11, 2016.

North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried talks with Dennis Smith Jr. (4) during action against Georgia Southern at the PNC Center in Raleigh, N.C., on November 11, 2016. (Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. - When N.C. State's infractions case was officially accepted by the NCAA's new independent resolution process on Monday, it moved its simmering dispute with the NCAA - one that broke into open hostility and allegations of acting in bad faith in April - into a netherworld of uncertainty and secrecy.

The Wolfpack's fate in the Dennis Smith Jr. case now rests in the hands of a process so new even the people most closely associated with it aren't quite sure what exactly to expect.

Naima Stevenson Starks moved over from the NCAA's legal department to act as the liaison between the NCAA and the new Independent Accountability Resolution Process, or IARP, and even after spending 14 years at the NCAA and being as familiar with the rules and regulations surrounding the new process as anyone alive, she's curious to see what will actually happen.

"A lot of the meat is already on the bone, but there will certainly be nuances as to how certain issues are approached as they arise, as long as they're done within the confines of the structure put in place," Stevenson Starks said in a telephone interview Friday. "I'm fascinated, even being on this side, how it all will play out."

There's so much about the independent process that's different from the usual peer-review process, but even things that are generally the same are kept quiet.


For example: N.C. State's case will now be heard by a random selection of five of the 15 IARP panel members, none of whom have any association with college athletics. Who those five are won't be revealed until the decision is announced.

Or this: as part of this process, there's a new Complex Case Unit that has the right to take the Notice of Allegations the NCAA's normal process produced and re-investigate some, none or all of it - but we won't know whether it actually did or not until there's a decision.

And unlike the normal process, where the same people who investigated the case present the allegations, the independent process adds an "advocate" who is essentially a district attorney to try the case, just as specified in the opening credits of "Law & Order." Dun dun.

Even the timeline is a state secret. Under the normal process, there's always a rhythm to the proceedings, an inexact waltz from allegations to response to reply to hearing to decision, some set by NCAA rules, some by precedent. There's none of that in the independent process. The timetable will be set by the panel and the two sides, same as litigation in a Main Street courthouse.

And while the panel is judging the facts of the case by the same NCAA rules as the Committee on Infractions does in the usual routine, it is under no obligation to necessarily apply those rules the same way. That was kind of the point all along, to let a panel of people not associated with the NCAA figure out how best to judge NCAA members, rather than peers who would potentially be affected themselves by the rulings they made.

Then there is the sticking point N.C. State made such a big deal about earlier: There is no appeal. When the NCAA created the IARP process, all decisions were intended to be final. N.C. State left open the threat of legal action - a mild way to put it, really, since the university has already assembled a team of elite litigators - outside the NCAA process if it doesn't like the outcome.

"You don't often see institutions taking legal action with respect to infractions decisions," Stevenson Starks said. "Certainly we've seen individuals file litigation and make threats of litigation when the outcome is not what they think is appropriate. We've been fairly successful on the peer-review side defending such actions when they have arisen."


There is one certainty here: N.C. State may have been the second case into the process, following Memphis, but it won't be the last. The exchanges between the NCAA and Kansas have been as contentious as those between the NCAA and N.C. State, and several more cases have arisen or are expected to arise out of the federal investigation into college-basketball corruption and the ensuing trials.

The case against N.C. State and Mark Gottfried and Orlando Early was the first to come out of the Adidas scandal and the first to end up in the IARP. Kansas, Louisville, Arizona, LSU and others could all yet wander down this road not yet taken.

And while Stevenson Starks couldn't comment on the specifics of those cases, she acknowledged the obvious connection between the Adidas scandal, the Rice Commission and the IARP, each of which emerged from the other.

"There's no expectation that a certain category of cases would come in, but the goal of the process was to address those cases not well suited for the peer-review model, which is predicated on a cooperative, collaborative approach to resolving infractions matters," Stevenson Starks said. "As I'm sure you've noticed over time, there is a subset of cases our peer-review process is perfectly suited to handle, the majority of cases, including some complex, Level I cases. But there are some cases every year that just don't fit into the self-governing, self-regulating model."

N.C. State is one of them, with the NCAA accusing the school of "adversarial posturing" and "fulsome attacks on the process" and the university accusing the NCAA of prejudicial behavior that "taints this case going forward." There's nothing cooperative or collaborative about that case. Nor, from now on, is there anything predictable about it.

For anyone.

"It will be really interesting to see how they view some of our rules and how they should be applied in certain situations," Stevenson Starks said. "This is going to be fascinating."

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