The scene in Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday night looked like something out of a movie. Three college basketball players trudged off a plane and were immediately swarmed by an almost comedic band of photographers. With cameras flashing, the mob made it almost impossible for the young athletes to walk as they covered their eyes with their hands and tried to make their way out of the airport.
The three athletes — basketball players from UCLA — were most likely robbed, in that moment, of the relief they were hoping to feel upon returning to the United States. LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill had spent days under house arrest in China after shoplifting during a team trip for an exhibition game to Hangzhou. The trio was released only after a plea from President Donald Trump himself, a surprising move during the president’s trip to Asia.
Wednesday morning was the first time that the players addressed the issue. They sat at a table, with statements before them, and kept their heads bowed as they slowly stumbled over their prepared apologies. They were guilty. They were sorry. They were thankful for the chance to grow from the experience.
UCLA, in response, suspended them indefinitely.
I was shocked when I read this punishment. An indefinite suspension? There are coaches in the country who suspend players for that long when they’re caught breaking basic team rules. As time went on, I became more and more dumbfounded by the lackadaisical response to such an egregious error.
Yes, LiAngelo Ball is part of the infamous Ball family headed by cantankerous egomaniac LaVar Ball, and his father’s response to the whole affair was as stupid as can be expected. But that’s not the real issue here. I could probably let loose a book’s worth (or three) about the idiocy of the way LaVar has preened over the talents of both himself and his children, but I’m not writing a column about parenting. Instead, what I want to look at is the dangerous way that we raise athletes as a society of sports fans.
These boys are only a few months out of high school. When they went abroad, they were representing both their team and their country, and they were tasked with doing this well. Instead, they broke the law and disgraced everyone whom they were representing. This isn’t a time for forgiveness; it’s a time for punishment.
Let’s make this clear — an indefinite suspension means that these players can come back at any time. It means that head coach Steve Alford is too concerned with these players’ skills to be willing to suspend them for a whole season. He had to keep everything on the table. And it also means that UCLA, in allowing these players to remain as students, is also valuing them more because of their skills on the court.
This happens all too often, and we’re aware of it to a certain extent. College athletes can rob convenience stores, punch out women in bars or beat their pregnant girlfriends until they are bloody and still earn places on NBA and NFL teams. These athletes are, in many ways, above the law.
So perhaps what smacks so wrong in this situation is the fact that this isn’t just American law that athletes are now considered to stand above. These three young men were released from China and allowed to return to America mainly based on their standing as high-profile athletes. And now, the process will begin again — apology statements followed by short suspensions followed by standout performances on the court that somehow erase those past transgressions from our memories.
This is a cycle that we must break. We can’t continue to allow young men to think that they are somehow above any law, including that of their own universities. If we have any hope of seeing young athletes become better human beings, fans and programs alike must begin to take more responsibility in the way they rebuke their stars.
There’s still time for this wrong to be righted. The UCLA administration could step in, or the NCAA could strong-arm the program into a longer suspension or a harsher punishment. But if this is allowed to stand as it is, we will not make any progress going forward.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.