Let’s not kid ourselves, the cost of labor in any industry is tied to scarcity.  And in the world of sports, talent is rare and accordingly, often accommodated with positions of wealth and privilege. We are about to witness how far that privilege stretches in Westwood, California.

According to ESPN, there’s a big internal debate within the UCLA community about what sanctions to levy against the three freshman basketball players caught shoplifting in China on a recent “goodwill tour”.

UCLA freshman accused of shoplifting in China address the press upon returning home. (l-r) Cody Riley, DiAngelo Ball, and Jalen Hill. (photo NY Daily News)

Some in the Bruin community believe that Cody RileyLiAngelo Ball, and Jalen Hill,  should be suspended for the entire season, if not expelled from school. Others say that a half-a-year suspension would be sufficient punishment. Interestingly, we note that half a season would coincide with the start of Pac-12 conference play.

All three players were confined to the team hotel in Hangzhou, China after being arrested for shoplifting at three high-end stores nearby.  They were not permitted to leave the country with the rest of the team until their legal process was completed.  Fortunately for them, President Trump had recently completed his 12-day Far East trip, and was able to prevail upon Chinese President Xi Jinping to intercede on behalf of the young men.

Upon their release and return to the U.S., the players were contrite at their first press conference, thanking President Trump and the State Department. They all “feel terrible” and “take full responsibility” and “have learned my lesson from this big mistake”, promising “not to make a bad decision like this one again.” LiAngelo Ball’s father, the outspoken LaVar Ball, called the incident, “no big deal” while he was in China with his son. Others believe differently.

Bruin Coach Steve Alford said the three players would not travel, suit up for games, or practice while the school reviews their situation.

Understandably, how the school decides to sanction their student-athletes should prove instructive in defining what UCLA deems as important, considering that it is primarily an educational institution. But we aren’t so naive as to think young men with particular physical traits and talents will be treated like any other freshman in Westwood. These three student-athletes were highly recruited, and may well be open to transferring to another program if the punishment handed down disrupts their professional progress.

Sadly, this is not virgin territory for UCLA.  In the summer of 2010, three incoming freshman football players were arrested after being caught stealing a backpack containing goods valued at over $1000.

Then-UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel suspended all three for the entire season, a move that hurt both his team and his own future at UCLA. What’s more, the three weren’t just suspended from the football team. School officials pulled them from summer school, then didn’t allow them to enroll for the fall quarter. All three decided to transfer. The following year, Coach Neuheisel lost his own position after the team went 6–8 (5–4 in the Pac-12).

Based on their own precedent, then, UCLA knows what the right thing to do is. Let’s see if they have the stomach for it a second time. A cynical friend said, “the school is just waiting to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing  before making a decision, donors, alumni, Pac-12.”

What makes this case even more news-bubbly than the 2010 football one, however, is that this time it happened on foreign soil and turned into an international incident involving presidential diplomacy. The whole world is watching, and, as Cody Riley said himself, “I know this goes beyond me letting my school down, but I let the entire country down.”

So what lesson will UCLA decide to teach? This one mistake doesn’t have to define the lives of these three young men, but it could be definitional for the university.

The rancid smell of sanctimonious privilege is currently wafting over the nation’s capital. There, two unnamed sitting members of Congress who have been accused of sexual misconduct are being shielded by laws meant to protect them at the expense of their accusers, even as tax-payer money has been spent to settle cases quietly.

Lesson learned: achieve enough status or station, and rules either don’t apply or are enforced minimally.

In most cases, being young, male, and black are the only qualities you need to get be on the wrong side of justice in this country. But stand tall enough and possess enough exceptional ball-centric skills, and those exceptions will trump even race, even common sense? You think UCLA is willing to distribute that class-plan?

If so, you no longer need not wonder why the American public decided to throw Donald Trump into the chicken coop last November, or why Roy Moore remains a viable candidate for senator in Alabama.


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