Opinion | Cockburn’s suspension epitomizes NCAA double standards


Kofi Cockburn looks toward an official during the game against St. Francis Oct. 23. Columnist Nick Johnson argues that Cockburn’s suspension is the perfect example of NCAA double standards.

By Nick Johnson, Assistant Opinions Editor

Last week, the NCAA announced that star Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn will be suspended for the first three games of the upcoming basketball season after it was made known that he sold team-issued memorabilia three weeks before the NCAA changed its rules on name, image and likeness — commonly referred to as NIL. Cockburn will miss the contest against Jackson State, as well as the forthcoming games against Arkansas State and Marquette.

The recent NIL rule change is widely considered to have been long overdue, as it finally allows college athletes to profit off the fame they’ve built for themselves in their respective sports. Athletes may now sell merchandise with their NIL and reap the entirety of the profits. 

Illini men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood has already voiced his concerns over Cockburn’s suspension, highlighting how the Jamaican native was faced with unprecedented circumstances when he decided to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return to Illinois. While Coach Underwood posits a valid criticism, the issues with the suspension run far deeper than a mere oversight of extraordinary circumstances.

Cockburn was suspended three games for selling team-licensed merchandise just a few weeks before the NCAA changed its antiquated NIL rules. In contrast, Mark Few, Gonzaga University’s men’s head basketball coach, recently pled guilty to a DUI. 

He was suspended only one game by the NCAA.

A DUI is a class A misdemeanor, which can result in up to nine months of jail time for the first offense. If someone is injured in the process or the driver’s blood alcohol content is high enough, it qualifies as a felony charge. This is what Few pleaded guilty to, and he received one-third of the suspension that was levied against Cockburn for breaking a rule the NCAA has since ruled to be outmoded and unfair to student-athletes.

As asinine as the NCAA’s handling of both situations has been, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Cockburn’s suspension is emblematic of the long-standing and outrageous double standard that the NCAA has established between its coaches and its players. 

Perhaps the quintessential example of this double standard is the NCAA’s coddling of John Calipari, the current men’s basketball head coach at the University of Kentucky. Although Coach Calipari is undoubtedly one of the most esteemed college basketball coaches of the modern era, he boasts an ugly track record of breaking NCAA recruiting rules at schools he formerly coached at and then leaving before things got ugly. 

After Calipari had left the University of Massachusetts to coach in the NBA, it was discovered that star guard Marcus Camby had received illegal funding while playing for the school. UMass was stripped of its Final Four banner while Calipari got off clean. The University of Memphis also vacated its Final Four appearance in addition to sustaining three years’ probation for similar violations that were committed under Calipari, who by that time had left for Kentucky and received no punishment.

James Wiseman, a 20-year-old center who currently plays for the Golden State Warriors, was committed to the University of Memphis and touted as the number one recruit in the nation ahead of the 2019 college basketball season. Unfortunately, Wiseman received a 12-game suspension from the NCAA due to a peculiar technicality in a donor dispute during his recruitment process. The promising young star’s college career lasted a meager three games.

Yet, at that very same university only a decade earlier, Calipari enabled the violation of similar recruiting rules and emerged unscathed by any NCAA punishment.

In the NCAA’s eyes, it’s acceptable for a head coach who swept recruitment violations under the rug to walk free, while a student-athlete who allegedly benefited from similar violations misses out on nearly his entire college career.

It’s time for the NCAA to take a good long look in the mirror and recognize the brazen hypocrisy it has allowed to fester in its imposition of punishments against coaches as opposed to student-athletes. If anyone is to argue that the NCAA doesn’t have an egregious double standard, the burden is on them to justify why violating an archaic and now overturned rule warrants a tougher suspension than driving under the influence.

Cockburn’s suspension is merely the latest iteration of this double standard — one can only hope that the big man’s impending absence will stir up a national conversation that places pressure on the NCAA to address the absurdity of its actions. 

Nick is a junior in LAS.

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