Accountability with Athletes

ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: What’s the Right Punishment for the 3 UCLA Hoopsters Caught Shoplifting in China?

Here’s a pop quiz for you.

What’s the appropriate punishment for the three freshman UCLA basketball players who were caught shoplifting in China?

Now, they all said the right things at their recent televised press conference…that they will learn from this experience….that they apologize…and what they did was not who they really are – not the way they were brought up.

They even thanked the President and the United States Government.

Okay. This was all good AND was to expected. And UCLA has handed them an indefinite suspension.

My question to you:

Should it be for a few games?

Should they be allowed to return and play in the Pac-12 conference games later this season?

Should they be suspended for the entire season?

Should they be kicked out of school entirely?

Should they lose their athletic scholarships?

Should they do some sort of community service?

Now, before you answer, a few facts to consider:

Fact number one: In China, stealing is considered to be a most serious crime, When Trump said that these kids – who apparently shoplilfted merchandise not from one store, but from three were looking at 10 years in jail in China, that wasn’t fake news…that’s real news.

Theft in that country is a big, big deal. There is total zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, regardless of whether you’re a Chinese citizen or a visiting basketball player.

Fact number two: What would a college do with a typical or regular student who was caught shoplifting? Chances are the school probably would not get involved at all. Being arrested wouldn’t interfere with their student status, but the kid would have to deal with the judicial system on his or her own. That is, no one from the university or a coach or the President of the US would get involved.

But this case is, of course, different….why?

Because when you are a representative of your university and are travelling in a foreign country, it’s no longer just about you. As a representative of the university and the team, you are fully expected to behave in a manner that is respectful and honorable.

So, if you’re UCLA, or Coach Steve Alford – a former star player and protégé of old school Coach Bobby Knight at Indiana — what’s the right message to send here? Alford has said that the three players – LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill – will have to earn their way back to playing time. But he wasn’t more specific than that, or what they would have to do to earn their way.


Or do you subscribe to the theory that all teenagers make dumb mistakes, and as adults, we need to accept their miscues, forgive them, and move on. Apparently, in China, this theory doesn’t hold much sway.

Remember a few weeks ago, we were discussing teenage accountability — about learning to take responsibility for one’s mistakes…learning how to think ahead of the consequences of one’s actions BEFORE you commit them?

Well, this case is Exhibit A. And the callers this AM on my radio were fairly outspoken. The vast consensus was for harsh punishment – to either kick them out of college or to suspend them for the year. There wasn’t much compassion for giving these kids a second chance and to let them compete again this year.

One young caller — who was 23 — said that he had encountered a similar situation a year or so ago when he was a member of a D-I college swim team. On a team trip to Puerto Rico to compete in a meet, two of the team’s top players were caught drinking which was against team and school rules. They were summarily dismissed from the team. The caller said that losing their two top competitors hurt the team’s chances during the year, but no one on the squad disagreed with the punishment. The two swimmers knew the rules before they left for Puerto Rico, and they knowingly broke them. They thus has to face the consequences.

Many of the callers today felt the way. It was assumed that either Coach Alford or someone from UCLA sat down with the entire basketball team before they embarked for China, and said, “Look, you’re going to be representing UCLA and our athletic program in a different country which has a much difficult culture and different laws. Be respectful and don’t do anything stupid.”

Bottom line? These three kids are lucky to be back in the US. But mark my words: I won’t be surprised if they are back playing in games before Christmas. Let’s just hope this “teachable moment” has some real effect on their young lives.


  • Coach Wolf…I believe your perspective and explanations are right on point. Well said. For a consequence to fit the crime, AND change behavior (not only for the athletes committing the act, but to act as a deterrent for all who come after) it MUST impact the players. Not doing so enables the same. With that said…I would accept consequence from suspension for the rest of the season to loss of scholarship and off the team. The later of which is on the much more stricter end of the consequence continuum. Anything less than this, as one defense attorney mentioned 4 games as sufficient (REALLY), would have little impact…like a slap on the wrist, and will enable the same from others. My 2 cents!!!

    • Rick Wolff

      Thanks Kirk – at some point, as coaches and adults, we have to teach our kids the value of being held accountable for their actions in life. Essential life lessons!

  • Chris P.

    What if they were highly sought after high school players and they did this in either America or another foreign country? We’d be saying how college coaches would easily cross them off the list right? Well we kind of answered our own questions right here. The coach is doing the right thing. Stealing IS a big deal.

    • Rick Wolff

      I agree. Last time I checked, stealing is a crime, not only in China but also here in the US too!