Even though they were foolish enough to get caught shoplifting in a country where defendant rights are far from guaranteed, the UCLA three are flying home without spending a single day in a Chinese prison.
Now the question is whether UCLA will decide to wield a stronger hammer than Chinese authorities did.
A source told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday morning that UCLA has not yet decided how to punish LiAngelo Ball and teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill for allegedly stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou. Expect the decision not to solely be in the hands of the UCLA coaching staff given the high-profile nature of the incident and the importance of the Chinese market to the school.
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. UCLA devotes ample marketing dollars to building a strong brand in China, but this highly publicized, highly embarrassing incident likely did some damage to those efforts.
“We remain one of the world’s top academic institutions in large part because of our values and standards,” chancellor Gene Block wrote in a message to the UCLA community on Tuesday.
“When members of the UCLA family fail to uphold these values, we review these incidents with fair and thorough processes. 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.”
The Pac-12 also cannot be thrilled with the incident given its efforts to expand its global footprint, particularly in the Chinese market. Not only has the Pac-12 hosted regular season basketball games in China for each of the past three seasons, the league also signed a deal giving the Alibaba group the ability to stream 175 Pac-12 games annually in China through 2024.
It’s difficult to envision the UCLA three avoiding significant punishment given the potential financial ramifications of their ill-timed criminal act. It also won’t help that UCLA will face pressure to act swiftly and severely given the outsized attention this incident has received in both the U.S. and China.
Ball is the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball and the middle son of outspoken basketball dad, sneaker entrepreneur and reality TV personality LaVar Ball. Riley and Hill aren’t international celebrities like the Balls, but both are top 100 prospects and key members of a heralded UCLA recruiting class expected to keep the Bruins nationally relevant this season.
How harshly should UCLA punish Ball, Riley and Hill?
A 12-game suspension seems reasonable so long as it comes with a warning that any further criminal behavior 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.
Immediate expulsion, on the other hand, seems overly severe. None of these three players have a history off-court trouble and their former high school coaches describe them as well-behaved kids who made an outrageously idiotic decision at the worst possible time.
Josh Giles, Hill’s former coach at Centennial High in Corona, Calif., said that the 17-year-old power forward was a good student and hard worker who typically would be waiting for the coaches when they arrived to open the gym at 6:30 a.m. on weekday mornings. Hill often spent a chunk of the little free time he had entertaining Giles’ four kids, whether by attending their basketball games on Sunday mornings, giving them piggyback rides on his shoulders after practices or showing off the gold medal he won with the U.S. U-16 team two summers ago.
“These kids are getting crushed in the media, and some of it is rightfully earned,” Giles said. “If you’re going to do something so stupid, you have to deal with the consequences of it. But at the same time, this is an isolated incident that doesn’t give you a clear picture of who Jalen is as a person. He’s a really, really good kid who made a really, really bad decision. He’s not the antichrist.”
The best memories that Riley’s high school coach has of the 19-year-old aren’t on the basketball court. They’re at Los Angeles-area elementary schools. Sierra Canyon coach Ty Nichols recalls the gregarious 6-10, 260-pound power forward serving as an enthusiastic mentor in the school’s Hoops with Heart program for the past few years.
“He always had a huge heart, he was always super personable and he was always looking out for others,” Nichols said. “He was a leader on and off the court. When we did Hoops with Heart outreach days, he was amazing in those environments.”
None of that excuses what Ball, Hill and Riley were caught doing, of course. Shoplifting would be a shortsighted thing to do in Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach or Malibu. To do it in China, where punishments can be both stringent and unpredictable, is especially senseless. Only because Alibaba officials, the U.S. State Department and President Donald Trump intervened on their behalf did the UCLA three get to fly home after a week without further punishment.
Now the judge’s gavel is in UCLA’s hands and the world is awaiting the university’s decision.
A brief suspension would be too lenient. Expulsion would be too harsh. Given the crime and the trouble-free history of the three players involved, something in between is probably just about right.
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