Sam Mellinger

The shame of the NCAA’s handling of Kansas basketball player Silvio De Sousa

The innocent kid is the only one being punished because the adults in charge don’t know a better way to enforce the unfair and outdated rules they make up on the fly to guard their own profits over the interests of the student-athletes they pretend to protect.

Somehow, this is where we are with the NCAA and Kansas basketball forward Silvio De Sousa.

The NCAA has no evidence and presumably no way of proving De Sousa did anything wrong. He continues to sit out anyway, his college career dissolving. The official explanation is that his eligibility is being investigated.

The real world result is that his de facto suspension for something that either didn’t happen or happened without him knowing is about to hit 13 games and drip into conference play this week.

How is any of this fair?

If De Sousa knew about or accepted a payment, then he should be ineligible. If Kansas coach Bill Self knew about or helped set up a payment, then he should be punished.

There is no proof that either happened.

The NCAA’s amateurism rules have always been based on something other than reality. They are squishy, and constantly changing, influenced by both whims and public opinion.

The weakness of those rules and the NCAA’s inability to enforce them were further exposed in the recent Adidas trial. De Sousa and a handful of other players around the country became collateral damage, their names and the alleged actions of some around them filling headlines.

The NCAA was embarrassed, and when the poorly kept secret of how the sausage is made went public, the governing body had a few options:

a) do some uncomfortable self-analysis and major overhaul that would better reflect the reality of a world in which billions of dollars are generated by athletes prohibited from accepting money.

b) double down on dumb rules, but at least do so with principle, beefing up enforcement in a way that would actually serve as a deterrent.

c) flop around like a dying fish, doing neither of the above but instead kicking the can down the road with non-suspensions that everyone understands are actually suspensions for student-athletes who have not been shown to have done anything wrong.

Guess which option the NCAA chose?

Calling the NCAA hypocritical has become a cliche, which is a shame, because it’s the adjective that fits best. Because if the NCAA actually cared so much about its rules it would keep Self from coaching until the eligibility matter was settled.

After all, he’s the one in charge.

Nothing came out in the trial that proves Self knew about any broken rules, but he’s a 56-year-old man in his 26th year as a head coach. He knows a hell of a lot more about the machinations than a 20-year-old who came here from Angola four years ago.

But of course the NCAA isn’t going to punish the coach. Self is a rock star, much more important to the sport’s profitability than De Sousa. The powerful are protected.

To be clear: this is not a call for Self to be punished unless it’s shown he knew about — and then subsequently lied about — broken rules.

This is merely a call for the kid to be given the same rights as the adult. De Sousa only gets one shot at this. Self has been in the business for decades, and will continue to be as long as he wants.

This used to be how it was, by the way. Cam Newton is the most famous example. His dad was shown to have asked to be paid for a commitment, but Newton was allowed to continue at Auburn because he didn’t know.

There are obvious profit and image motives here for the NCAA. Newton was in the midst of a career highlighted by a Heisman Trophy and national championship. Would have been a bad look and hit on TV ratings if he was made ineligible.

Not that the NCAA would ever consider such things in deeming who is and isn’t worth punishment.


Shortly after Newton left Auburn, the NCAA changed its rule and now makes the athlete punishable for payments or gifts to family. Which is why De Sousa is literally sitting on the sideline watching a season he needed to bolster a professional career slips by.

A source familiar with De Sousa’s investigation expressed confidence that he would be cleared, but wasn’t sure when that would happen. The NCAA has issued nine-game suspensions in similar situations in the past, but that mile marker passed with the South Dakota game two weeks ago.

The uncertainty and indecision by the adults in charge serve as a bit of a cruel mind tug on De Sousa, too. Any ruling would be better than the status quo. If the NCAA gives him time served, he can resume playing. If he’s somehow ruled to be permanently ineligible for actions he didn’t know about, then at least then he could leave Kansas and start his professional career in the G-League or overseas.

As it stands, he’s in punishment limbo.

By now, NCAA investigators either have enough to make De Sousa ineligible or should stand down and let the kid play. Their selective and passive-aggressive methods are bad for the student-athletes they claim to protect and also bad for business.

The NCAA should be better than this. Unfortunately, this is only the latest proof that it is not.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.