Cockburn speaks against racial injustice in America

By Gabby Hajduk, Sports Editor

Illini center Kofi Cockburn was the most dominant freshman in the Big Ten last year. He’s known for his glass-rattling dunks, his game-winning blocks and his intimidating stature, but on Thursday, he made the statement that he is more than an athlete. 

His statement, however, didn’t need to be spoken. Donning a white t-shirt with the phrase ‘More Than an Athlete,’ Cockburn took a seat in front of several media members, virtually, of course, to answer questions about his return to Champaign. But, it was also clear another conversation would be had.

“A lot of people gravitate towards me,” Cockburn said over Zoom. “A lot of people respect me and a lot of people follow me. I need to use my voice. Not everybody has a voice. Not everybody has that platform where they can express themselves and be heard. So I definitely think I have to speak up for all those people that don’t have the opportunity that I have or have the platform that I have.”

Cockburn wasn’t just speaking for athletes; he was speaking up for Black America. 

Just a day before, the NBA and WNBA sent a historic message to the nation by going on strike in the midst of the season following the shooting of Jacob Blake last Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times by a police officer. 

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With the strike, some of the biggest names in sports told their country they would not just be entertainment and now was not the time to play basketball. 

Cockburn has joined these athletes in vocalizing his support in fighting against racial injustices and racism. But, if Cockburn were still in his home country of Jamaica, he wouldn’t be posting about these social injustices. Not because he didn’t care or felt a different way, but because they simply don’t exist. 

“It’s totally different from back home,” Cockburn said. “Back home, growing up, racism wasn’t even in the picture. I come here now and there are words you can’t say to a different race, stuff like that … I have to be really mindful of what I say to people and how I say it. I just came here and saw, especially (as) a Black male, how they’re treated in America.”

In the past year alone, Cockburn has witnessed first-hand how America handles tough situations. 

Between the coronavirus pandemic, the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the nationwide protests in support of Black lives and, most recently, the shooting of Blake, Cockburn has had the chance to compare his new home to his home country. 

Needless to say, he is far from impressed.

“Whenever something bad happens in Jamaica, everybody comes together and everybody protects that situation and tries to fix it,” Cockburn said. “I don’t think that’s the case here. A lot of people stand up for it, a lot of people talk about it, but no one really makes a step to change things. That’s what I mean by free. In Jamaica, people aren’t offended by certain things and we obviously never dealt with slavery or anything like that. We’re just a happy country.”

While Cockburn has been exposed to a lot of negativity in America, his current home — Champaign — has given him a small taste of Jamaica. Compared to New York, where Cockburn first lived after moving to America, Champaign is a “different vibe” in the best way.

In his short time in Champaign, Cockburn has found support in fans, classmates, young kids, alumni and in his team.

Starting at the highest level, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman has created a safe space among Illinois athletics for athletes to express themselves and their opinions. On Thursday, Whitman put out a statement of his own regarding the racial injustices. 

“When will we decide, collectively, that we’ve had enough,” Whitman said in a tweet. “Enough pain? Enough anger? Enough injustice? I’m proud to see sports and athletes taking advantage of our platform and acting as leaders for social change. It starts with each one of us making a decision.”

Head coach Brad Underwood has also made it possible for his diverse group of players to share their thoughts and feelings collectively and learn from one another.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking together as a team,” Cockburn said. “We have Zoom calls; so when we have time, coach Underwood will put us on a Zoom call and have us express our feelings and talk about what’s going on. I think that’s really big, because we’re really diverse; we have players from all over the country of different races. We get to share opinions and understand each other better. We have somebody like Andre, he’s from Puerto Rico and someone like me who is from Jamaica, someone like Giorgi who’s from Georgia, we have a totally different understanding of what’s going on.”

Sharing those different perspectives has left a lasting effect on Cockburn and how he views social injustices in America. He encourages everyone to try and do the same, but for now Cockburn will continue to use his platform and attempt to help make a change.

“The biggest thing is empathy,” Cockburn said. “Most people use the same excuse, ‘I’ve never been through it, I don’t know what it feels like.’ You can always put yourself in someone else’s shoes …  everybody knows what’s right from wrong, so I don’t understand. I think we can all agree racism is a nasty thing, so why doesn’t everybody else feel the same way?”


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