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Todd McNair was victim in NCAA scheme to ‘hammer USC’, lawyer argues as trial opens

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Almost seven years after former USC assistant football coach Todd McNair sued the NCAA for defamation, jurors filed into a wood-paneled room on the fifth floor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Monday morning.

They clutched a cup of coffee. A laptop case. A newspaper. A weathered Bible. Notepads with “Do not remove from courtroom” scrawled on the back.

“It seems we’re finally ready to do it,” L.A. County Superior Court Judge Frederick Shaller said.

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The long-awaited trial, delayed by years of detours through an appellate court, finally opened a few minutes after 9 a.m.

“Football is a game,” one of McNair’s attorneys, Bruce Broillet, told the jury. “Football coaches’ reputations are not.”

The opening statements Monday started a three-week journey through the extra-benefits scandal involving former USC running back Reggie Bush and the NCAA infractions process that led to historic sanctions against the Trojans that McNair alleges ended his coaching career.

He sued the NCAA after being sanctioned for unethical conduct in the Bush case, and hasn’t coached for a college or professional team since USC declined to renew his contract in June 2010.

McNair, scheduled to testify in the trial, sat in the the first row of the small courtroom along with a couple dozen attorneys, media members and others. His face remained expressionless, though he occasionally nodded in agreement. An NCAA official, Naima Stevenson, took notes a few feet away.

McNair listened to Broillet tell the jury how the former coach tried to land jobs with three colleges and three professional football teams and failed, because of the stigma associated with the one-year “show cause” penalty issued by the NCAA’s infractions committee. The coach who once made $250,000 a year at USC did odd jobs to make ends meet, including driving for Uber. He drank heavily, Boillet said, and suffered from depression.

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An attorney for the NCAA, Kosta Stojilkovic, blamed McNair’s hard times on the former coach. The attorney dismissed the infraction committee’s punishment against McNair as “moderate” and “one of the lightest penalties” it could issue and “about as low as you can go.” Stojilkovic said “dozens and dozens” of other coaches have suffered worse punishments and been able to find work, singling out basketball coaches Bruce Pearl and Kelvin Sampson.

“Mr. McNair has not done the kinds of things he needed to do to move on with his career,” Stojilkovic told the jury, saying he should’ve hired an agent and submitted formal job applications.

Both attorneys covered familiar ground. The disputed phone call between would-be sports agent Lloyd Lake and McNair in January 2006 that is at the heart of the NCAA’s case. Whether McNair knew Bush received extra benefits. Whether NCAA investigators “botched” the case and misrepresented testimony, as Broillet alleged. And the email from Shep Cooper, the NCAA infractions committee liaison who described McNair as a “morally bankrupt criminal” to another committee member in February 2010.

Stojilkovic said the infractions process involving McNair “were not perfect” and “we’re going to take responsibility for those mistakes throughout this trial.” He added that Cooper’s email was “completely unacceptable” — while downplaying Cooper’s importance — and maintained it didn’t impact the case’s outcome.

During Mark Emmert’s deposition earlier this month, Stojilkovic said, the NCAA president called the email “ill-advised” and said Cooper suffered an unspecified consequence.

But Stojilkovic argued that the emails and debate about investigative competence were just a sideshow to the real questions. Did McNair tell the truth to investigators? Did the infractions committee report end his career?

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On the other side, Broillet told the jury the infractions committee “rewrote the evidence to fit what they wanted to do which was to hammer USC.”

The attorney displayed two documents on a big screen television at the front of the courtroom. The first had the infractions committee’s suggested penalties against USC before it reached a decision on McNair: a one-year postseason ban and the loss of six scholarships over two years. The second document showed the penalties after they found McNair guilty of unethical conduct: a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.

Broillet hammered the infractions committee as having “defamed” McNair and “misrepresented the facts.”

Stojilkovic repeatedly waved the infractions committee’s report in front of the jury.

“The report doesn’t even use his name,” the attorney said, since it refers to McNair as “assistant football coach.”

Stojilkovic added: “These reports aren’t published to make people look bad.”

He finished speaking around 4 p.m. Jurors yawned. Even Shaller looked weary. But the trial is only just starting.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

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Twitter: @nathanfenno

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