The three UCLA players who were detained in China for shoplifting returned to the U.S. on Tuesday night, following intervention from, among others, President Trump. As immensely relieved as LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley must be to have been allowed to leave so quickly — not to mention to have avoided prison sentences — they came back to calls for strong punishments from the school — and a chiding from the president.
Among those insisting that the trio be suspended for the entire season was Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who wrote Tuesday, “If the three students had any sort of involvement in something so appallingly entitled and dumb while on a school trip to a foreign country, UCLA’s next move should be clear. School authorities should say welcome home, and see you next season.”
The three Bruins were reportedly accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store adjacent to the team’s hotel where it was staying in Hangzhou, as part of a week-long trip that involved playing a game in Shanghai against Georgia Tech. Ball, Hill and Riley were released on bail in time for the game, but they were benched by Coach Steve Alford, and now that they are back in Los Angeles, it remains to be seen when they will be allowed to play.
During halftime of a nationally televised game Tuesday between No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Michigan State, ESPN’s Jay Williams disagreed with fellow analyst Seth Greenberg’s vehement assertion that the three players should sit out the season. After Williams said they should be suspended for “a couple of games,” adding, “We’re talking about kids,” Greenberg exclaimed, “I don’t care about ‘kids’! You’re taking your team to another country, a different culture, they steal things in three different stores, allegedly. To me, that’s egregious.”
“They should not be able to play this year. This is an embarrassment,” Greenberg said.
The arrest of the players coincided with a trip to Asia by Trump, who added an unexpected item to his agenda when he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help resolve their case.
“The basketball players, by the way — I know a lot of people are asking — I will tell you, when I heard about it two days ago, I had a great conversation with President Xi,” Trump said Tuesday while aboard Air Force One in Manila. “What they did was unfortunate. You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. [The Chinese] do not play games.”
In his Wednesday tweet, Trump exaggerated the punishment the players were facing. According to a blog that specializes in decoding the Chinese criminal justice system, the players could have received prison sentences of anywhere between one and four years under the worst-case scenario, punishment that likely would have been mitigated by the players’ ages and the fact that they appeared to be cooperating with authorities.
It’s not clear what terms were negotiated to bring the players back, but it’s apparent that they received relatively minimal punishments from China. Now it’s up to UCLA, possibly with some input from the Pac-12 Conference, to determine how the three freshmen should atone for what is a very embarrassing incident for the school.
“I want to be clear that we take seriously any violations of the law,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement. “In this particular case, both Athletics and the Office of Student Conduct will review this incident and guide any action with respect to the involved students. Such proceedings are confidential, which limits the specific information that can be shared.”
The 23rd-ranked Bruins have their home opener Wednesday, and before the game, Ball, Hill and Riley, as well as Alford and Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, are set to offer comments on the episode but reportedly will not take questions. Tuesday evening saw the players making their way through a media scrum after landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
Hanson Wang, a columnist for UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, called Sunday for his school to “lay down the hammer” in disciplining the trio. Citing his grandfather’s firsthand, frustrating experience with the Chinese legal system, Wang wrote that UCLA “should suspend the three players for the entire year and possibly more.”
“These players were responsible for representing UCLA and the country during their time abroad, and they failed to meet even the most basic standards of law-abiding citizens,” Wang wrote. “UCLA must hold them accountable and send the message that no player — or players — can be let off the hook for violating foreign laws and making a fool out of the school, the Pac-12 and the U.S.”
However, some have pointed out that UCLA officials might be concerned with how well lengthy suspensions may sit with LaVar Ball, LiAngelo’s father, who was with the Bruins in China when the arrests occurred and said of them, “It ain’t that big of a deal.” LaVar Ball’s oldest son, Lonzo, starred for the Bruins last season before being drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, and his highly touted youngest son, 16-year-old LaMelo, has already been ticketed to follow in his brothers’ footsteps and play for UCLA.
“UCLA officials now have the delicate task of determining a suitable punishment,” wrote USA Today’s Nancy Armour Tuesday. “And by suitable, I mean one that won’t incur the wrath of Ball’s father, LaVar. Or prompt him to yank another son out of school.”
In waiting to announce its disciplinary measures for Ball, Hill and Riley, UCLA might be trying to gauge how light a punishment it can get away with meting out. However, anything less than a full season’s suspension won’t go over well with at least a few media figures.