Column: In Wake of Stealing Scandal, Leniency for UCLA Athletes is Unfair to Other UC Students”

By Liam Bloom

Three freshmen on UCLA’s basketball team, LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, admitted on Nov. 15 to shoplifting designer sunglasses from three stores in Hangzhou, China. At the time, China was hosting UCLA for a series of exposition games against other universities.

For their actions, the young men faced three to ten years in prison in a country with a conviction rate of over 99 percent, according to Shanghai news. Luckily for the trio, U.S. diplomatic efforts aided by President Trump secured their release and return to Los Angeles.

No further criminal charges have been pressed, though it appears the men’s passports have been revoked. UCLA men’s basketball head coach Steve Alford, along with the school’s athletic director Dan Guerrero, have punished the men with an indefinite suspension. No specified length of suspension has been disclosed.

Repeatedly, Americans have read a similar story. Young college athlete breaks law, faces jail, escapes with minor consequences, then plays the remainder of the season. Barring the case of Cam Newton, rarely do we see athletes punished for their crimes. Likewise, the argument that they’re still young holds reason (the UCLA men were only freshmen). However, regardless of how you feel about these men, whether you think they were innocent, guilty or simply dumb kids who made a mistake, you ought to question the role played by UCLA.

According to UCLA’s code of student conduct, “Bruins hold themselves accountable to the commitments they make and for their conduct.” How can UCLA permit criminal actions directly opposed to their student code of conduct? Simply because the admittedly guilty freshmen basketball phenoms could potentially bring the university great sums of money.

According to a 2016 survey by Business Insider, UCLA Men’s Basketball earned an average of $12.3 million over the previous three years. This is, of course, in addition to the nearly $17 million they received in booster donations.

The annual estimated budget for a UCLA student, according to the university’s website, is over $33,000 to live on campus. Couple that with the cost of coaching, clothing, and tutors and clearly UCLA has made a hefty investment in each of their players. Scholarship players aren’t allowed to receive funding additional to their athletic scholarship, according to NCAA rules. NCAA rules would then assume the player to be without funding in the case of legal action.

A high profile case such as this would accrue extensive legal fees. Typically, NCAA rules prohibit student athletes from receiving financial support outside of their scholarship, travel expenses, and team clothing. Clearly, if NCAA rules were upheld, the students would either be under-represented, or would face crippling legal debt. However, student athletes always find themselves well-represented free of charge thanks to an NCAA loophole. While universities have been notoriously sanctioned by the NCAA for providing inexpensive team parties, it appears that providing costly legal support for student athletes is perfectly fine.

But what’s bizarre about this case is why UCLA would financially support three freshmen who haven’t had time to impact the team positively. It would appear to be simpler to just cut their scholarships and support a better behaved athlete. The answer to why UCLA kept the three troublemakers aboard lies in one of the players’ fathers: Lavar Ball. Ball is an outspoken basketball father who has notoriously prompted players to ignore their coaches, and who is currently in an ongoing dispute with President Trump over his son’s arrest in China. Lavar’s youngest son, and arguably the better talent according to ESPN Radio Los Angeles, is slated to attend UCLA after graduating high school. Lavar knows his youngest son, LaMelo, stands to bring great wealth and prestige to UCLA. Lavar also knows that he could take LaMelo to any other D1 school if UCLA doesn’t follow his demands.

Therefore, Lavar’s financial influence over UCLA likely factored into the university handing LiAngelo a light sentence, as well as supporting him legally. In this scenario, the university’s hand would be forced to rescue Hill and Riley along with Ball in order to avoid rumors of bribery.

Megan Durham, assistant director of the public and media for the NCAA states, “Students may retain an attorney by paying normative fees, but that attorney may also sit on the school’s athletic board.” But, because the attorney representing the student has a vested interest in the school’s athletic reputation, legal fees are often granted free of charge. This blatant conflict of interest directly opposes a NCAA statute which bars funding additional to scholarship.

John Infante, former NCAA compliance officer, adds that students may receive pro bono representation provided by the university if the case involves the student’s athletic involvement. So, while the NCAA prohibits students from receiving financial contributions for individual gain, they see no problem in supporting the players if their support helps the revenue of the university.

The UCLA men’s basketball fiasco couldn’t have come at a worse time for U.S. athletes’ representation on the world stage. Only two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, during the summer Olympics, swimmer Ryan Lochte was caught lying under oath about an imaginary robbery. In truth, Lochte vandalized a gas station and harassed citizens of his host country, and in so doing embarrassed himself and his country. Lochte was a decade older than the UCLA stars at the time of his scandal, but the reaction by our public was similar. We viewed him as just a kid who made a mistake, instead of a man who committed a crime. Our unruly athletes have become grown children who disgrace countries that host their events. Furthermore, this behavior ignores the fact that host countries are doing Americans a favor by televising our sports which they have little interest in, while Americans are doing no favors for them by committing embarrassing crimes. Their blatant disrespect for others is reflected on Americans at large, and may eventually impact our admittance to perform in other countries.

Regardless of your thoughts on Ball, Hill and Riley’s case, it should be obvious that UCLA owes these men the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. And the only way to do that is to not support their legal cases so that the young men will face consequences. But this is only possible if UCLA decides to put its student conduct pledge ahead of its profit motives.

UCLA is saying that not all students are equal. If a student stands to attract millions of dollars, that student has far greater value than a typical undergraduate. In order to uphold their belief that “Bruins hold themselves accountable to the commitments they make and for their conduct,” UCLA must hold themselves accountable for the profits they reap from unprofessional athletes. If UCLA won’t hold itself accountable for profiteering, they ought to at least hold their players accountable for thievery.