Sam Mellinger

The NCAA’s punishment of De Sousa could be just the beginning for Kansas

KU coach Bill Self comments on the two-year suspension of Silvio De Sousa that was handed down by the NCAA

Following the KU Jayhawks 79-63 win Saturday, KU head coach Bill Self addressed the media and commented on the two-year suspension of Silvio De Sousa that was handed down by the NCAA
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Following the KU Jayhawks 79-63 win Saturday, KU head coach Bill Self addressed the media and commented on the two-year suspension of Silvio De Sousa that was handed down by the NCAA

Silvio De Sousa is suspended two years for a rules violation that investigators agree he did not know about or benefit from. That is patently unfair and at different points in NCAA history would not have been punished.

The bigger story here, though, is that many in and around college sports believe this is merely the first step in a bigger play against the Kansas men’s basketball program and Hall of Fame coach Bill Self.

De Sousa, in that way, may simply be collateral damage in a bigger power move.

“I think that very much is the case,” said Don Jackson, a lawyer with extensive experience representing coaches and athletes against the NCAA.

KU athletics’ counsel and a spokesperson for the NCAA would not comment, but this column is informed by sources familiar with the case, in and around KU athletics, and with experience on the NCAA’s side.

Those with NCAA backgrounds disagreed with the assumption that De Sousa’s suspension was the beginning of a broader and more serious case against the university. One pointed out the difference between an eligibility case and infractions, though the former can lead to the latter.

Either way, it’s worth noting that the perception exists and not just inside KU’s athletic department.

“The NCAA wants to prove something and that’s the way it’s been for a while,” said a Division I coach. “Right or wrong, there’s been smoke (around KU basketball) but they haven’t been able to get anything to stick. The FBI and the (Adidas) trial ... this is their best chance. That’s what I see.”

Notably, there is at least some optimism inside KU’s program that an appeal on De Sousa’s case could be successful.

The case centers around former Adidas representative T.J. Gassnola’s testimony that he paid $2,500 to De Sousa’s guardian. The NCAA specified that KU must declare Gassnola as a booster before a reinstatement case is heard.

It’s a critical distinction, because booster behavior triggers stiffer penalties. But Josephine Potuto, a Nebraska law professor and former chair of the NCAA infractions committee, said that KU could classify Gassnola as a booster for the sake of the appeal and decide to change later.

The appeal would be heard by people from universities and conferences, not NCAA staff. The argument from KU and De Sousa would be that the guideline leading to the punishment is unfair, or has been misapplied.

The general hope is that the suspension would be reduced and De Sousa made eligible for next season. Scott Tompsett, De Sousa’s lawyer, was more direct when discussing the appeal.

“The NCAA still has an opportunity to do the right thing for Silvio,” he said. “They should take it.”

NCAA enforcement is seen by many as a swinging pendulum, affected by recent cases, public opinion and self-worth. In separate conversations, three different sources who work in college athletics drew a connection between the punishments against De Sousa and Mizzou.

Mizzou was given a one-year bowl ban, recruiting restrictions, and a substantial fine among other punishments after it was discovered that a tutor completed some course work for 12 athletes. Mizzou was not found to have known about or encouraged the violations, and cooperated fully with the investigation.

North Carolina is seen by many to have “gotten away with” an academic scandal that spanned more than a decade, and the details that came out in the Adidas trial embarrassed the NCAA.

Here comes the pendulum, then, swinging back toward the side of overly harsh punishments — Mizzou and Kansas are the first to pay. Again, that’s the perception from some.

“What seems to be occurring is a knee-jerk reaction to the FBI investigation,” Jackson said. “In an effort to quote ‘clean up college basketball,’ you essentially have an overreaction by the eligibility center staff, by the enforcement staff. They’ve lost perspective.

“Because how can you in good conscience take a player off the floor for two years who, according to everyone, had no knowledge and did not benefit in any way from what allegedly occurred?”

While Potuto said that labeling Gassnola as a booster would be a reversible decision and necessity to get the case going, Jackson saw it as potentially part of the groundwork for a bigger case against Kansas.

Separate cases have separate timelines and separate motivations, and here one could work against the other.

The university, for instance, wants what’s best for the student-athlete but what if that effort conflicts with a broader mission to protect the program? Jackson said he’s experienced that, and could see it happening at Kansas.

“Student-athletes are always collateral damage,” Jackson said. “That’s always one of my concerns. I’m sometimes representing student-athletes with universities who retain me to represent these athletes, and I sometimes get in fights with the university because I know these young people are not guilty of violations but the reality is it’s sometimes quicker to accept a declaration of ineligibility, go through a student-athlete reinstatement, have withholding penalties, and get back on the court quickly.

“In that case, the student-athlete is collateral damage. If the goal is to go after that program or this head coach, then frankly from the enforcement staff standpoint they could give a damn about this kid’s eligibility and I think that’s wrong.”

That’s the part that has some inside KU’s athletic department worried.

If the NCAA has been embarrassed by the Adidas trial, and sensitive to the accusations from many that it was toothless against North Carolina, then this could be the beginning of an enforcement body looking to blow off some steam.

Mizzou took the first hit, De Sousa the second. Now the NCAA could be working on more fallout from the trial, and if so, there is no bigger target than Self and a blueblood program with a Final Four run from last year.

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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.