LOS ANGELES — One day after his three players detained in China were granted permission to fly home to Los Angeles, UCLA coach Steve Alford finally received the go-ahead from school administrators to address the matter publicly for the first time.
Alford struck many of the right chords while reading a four-minute prepared statement to a Final Four-sized throng of reporters on Wednesday afternoon, but the punishment he announced for the UCLA three left more questions than answers.
The indefinite suspension of LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley is little more than a placeholder while UCLA’s athletic department and office of student conduct further review the shoplifting incident and assess what punishment it merits. Everything is presumably still on the table, from a relatively speedy reinstatement, to a season-long suspension, to perhaps even expulsion.
Until their suspension is lifted, Ball, Hill and Riley will not travel with UCLA to road games or suit up for home games. They also initially won’t be welcome at practices, workouts and team meetings, though Alford specifically cited the possibility they could eventually earn back that privilege by cooperating with the university review and performing well in the classroom.
“My expectation is they will work hard to demonstrate why they deserve to be part of this program,” said Alford, who left after reading his statement without answering any questions.
“These young men are going to have to prove through their words and actions that this is not who they are and they will not let their identity be defined by this incident. I know Gelo, Cody and Jalen well, and I’m confident they have already begun to use this experience as a life lesson. They’re going to have to regain the trust of this athletic department, the trust of this university and because this was such a high-profile international matter, the trust of the general public.”
It’s difficult to assess UCLA’s punishment of Ball, Hill and Riley until it becomes clear how long their indefinite suspension will last. Not until then is it reasonable to evaluate whether UCLA handed down a sufficient penalty for their outrageously foolish decision to steal items from Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores adjacent to the hotel where the Bruins were staying in advance of their game against Georgia Tech last Saturday in Shanghai.
A brief suspension would be far too lenient considering that Ball, Hill and Riley ignored the warnings of their coaches, broke Chinese law and sparked an international incident. Only the intervention of the U.S. State Department, President Donald Trump and a host of other powerful allies ensured that the UCLA three avoided jail time.
The global media attention the criminal act received undoubtedly damaged UCLA’s reputation in a country where the university devotes ample marketing dollars to wooing potential students. China is the biggest source of international applicants each year at UCLA, a financial windfall since students from outside of California pay about twice the tuition, room and board as in-state students do.
Immediate expulsion, on the other hand, would be far too harsh. These are 17-, 18- and 19-year-old college freshmen with no known history of criminal behavior or off-the-court trouble. Their family members and former high school coaches describe them as model citizens who made an outrageously senseless decision at the worst possible time.
What UCLA should do instead is sit Ball, Riley and Hill a minimum of 12 games, mandate that they do some community service during their suspension and warn them that any further slip-ups will result in expulsion. That would sideline the three players for the rest of non-conference play and give the coaching staff time to assess if they deserve the chance to return to the team once Pac-12 play begins.
Ball, the younger brother of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball and the middle son of sneaker entrepreneur and outspoken basketball dad LaVar Ball, is easily the best known of the UCLA trio. Hill and Riley aren’t the subjects of a reality TV show like the Ball brothers, but the two promising 6-foot-10 forwards are both top 100 recruits expected to contribute off the bench for the Bruins this season.
The three players each helped their chances of reinstatement on Wednesday by striking a remorseful tone in their first public comments since the incident. They walked into the Dick Enberg Media Room at Pauley Pavilion wearing matching striped UCLA polo shirts and then read prepared statements that acknowledged guilt and thanked those who helped get them home safely.
Riley went first.
“I want to start out by saying how embarrassed and ashamed I am to disappoint my family, my teammates, my coaches and the entire UCLA family,” he said. “I can assure you that I will never do anything again to jeopardize UCLA’s reputation or my own.”
Ball was next.
“I’m sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” he said. “I didn’t exercise my best judgment and I was wrong for that. I apologize to my family, my coaches, my teammates and UCLA for letting you down. I also apologize to the people of China for causing them so much trouble. I’m a young man, however, it’s not an excuse for making such a stupid decision.”
Hill went last.
“What I did was stupid. There’s just no other way to put it,” Hill said. “I don’t want to be known for this dumb mistake. I want to be known for my respectfulness and my love and passion for the game of basketball.”
Each UCLA player also made a point to thank President Trump by name in their prepared statements. The Attention Seeker-in-Chief caused a stir earlier Wednesday with a tweet wondering whether when the UCLA trio would show gratitude for his role in helping them escape more severe punishment.
Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2017
Now that the UCLA three have avoided spending the holidays in a Chinese jail, received permission to come home and expressed remorse for their incredibly idiotic actions, there’s really only one question of significance left: How harshly will UCLA punish them?
The indefinite suspension Alford announced Wednesday means little. Only after UCLA offers a clearer timetable for the reinstatement of the three players will it be possible to assess whether the school was too harsh, too lenient or just right.
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