The behavior of UCLA Bruins basketball players LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill, who were arrested in China last week and charged with shoplifting a pair of expensive sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou came under further scrutiny prior to their departure amidst reports that the three may have been involved in similar thefts at several other nearby shops.
According to LiAngelo Ball’s father, LaVar, “Everybody making it a big deal, it ain’t that big of a deal.”
Although first-time shoplifting offenders in California typically face misdemeanor charges and potential penalties of fines and/or time in a county jail, that’s not the case in China. Formal charges usually end up in a conviction and defendants can arbitrarily be sentenced to probation or spend years in prison. The judicial system is politicized and there are no guarantees that ordinary Chinese citizens will receive a fair trial. Guess it all depends on who you know.
While UCLA’s players may not be personally acquainted with the president of the United States, he interceded on their behalf and they were subsequently permitted to leave China and return home. If this was your kid or my kid, President Trump would not, in all likelihood, have phoned Chinese President Xi Jinping to spring us from jail. Those calls are usually reserved for former advisors and cabinet members, family, and, on occasion, athletes who don’t take a knee.
Unlike many Chinese citizens charged with offenses of this nature, the trio did not stew in a squalid state-run jail awaiting trial. They were holed up in the luxurious five-star Hyatt Regency Hotel, not the Hangzhou Hoosegow. They were not under house arrest. They were merely “detained.” As in detention. As in the kind of punishment meted out to wayward seventh graders.
According to some media reports, the three were even able to work out in the hotel gym, presumably to stay in shape for their next big home game back in Pauley Pavilion. And while they may not share misty watercolor memories of their trip to China when they arrive back in Los Angeles, while there they did have a spectacular view of Hangzhou’s beautiful West Lake, room service, high-speed internet, and satellite TV. Upon which they may have watched their less-incorrigible teammates kick Georgia Tech’s butts last week in Shanghai. Without their help.
Let me be clear. I do not wish these young men ill. I didn’t want to see them doing time in a Chinese prison. But I do think meaningful punishment is in order once they return stateside.
How about this. Revoke their athletic scholarships and kick their butts off the team. Permanently. No hand slaps. No sitting it out for four or five games or even a season. Gone. Game over.
There is a sense of entitlement among many young athletes that is, in the long run, potentially debilitating. From a very early age, these men and women are coddled and complimented and pumped up to a degree that they begin to believe their own press: that they are untouchable, invincible, superior. We do them a disservice in perpetuating this fantasy. Yet, we continue to do so because colleges make vast sums of money off the blood, sweat, pain, suffering, and triumphs of these very same athletes.
Even though they ultimately play for themselves and their teammates, UCLA was emblazoned across their jerseys and jackets. As such, they were representing all of us - not just Bruins fans - at home. Members of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets who were in the company of the three Bruins at the time of the alleged incident understood this. They were questioned and cleared of any wrong-doing.
The games our teams play overseas - exhibition, regular season, world championships, or the Olympics - are meant to show the world the best America has to offer. These guys were clearly neither our best or brightest.
All of us must play on a level field. In life, and under the law, we are all supposed to be equal. I feel sorry for LiAngelo, Cody, and Jalen. Wrong, however, is still wrong and bad behavior cannot go unpunished, especially when it is criminal in nature. Being benched would be insufficient and unfair to the millions of athletes worldwide, both amateur and professional, who manage to keep their noses clean, play by the rules, and consistently demonstrate good sportsmanship, both on and off the court.
Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.firstname.lastname@example.org.