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Trump May Have Bailed Out the UCLA Freshmen in China, but Their Future With the Team Is Unclear

LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill have been suspended indefinitely by the team. The aftermath of the ordeal will be worth tracking.

UCLA Press Conference Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

On Wednesday, UCLA announced that freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill would be suspended from its men’s basketball team indefinitely. The three were arrested in China last week for shoplifting at three different stores during their stay in Hangzhou for the Pac-12’s annual China Game and spent a week confined to the team’s hotel.

The players returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday night after President Donald Trump, who was visiting Asia for a tour of the region at the time, reportedly discussed the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The three players were subsequently released on $2,200 bail, which the Chinese government has reportedly been refunded. On Wednesday morning, Trump asked rhetorically in a tweet whether the UCLA players would thank him for his involvement. They did.

At a press conference on Wednesday, UCLA did not allow questions from the media, but each player did issue a statement of apology and acknowledgment for the crimes. “We are very disappointed in the conduct of our three student-athletes,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said.

“It is important to underscore that thanks to our hosts and partners—most notably Alibaba and the Federation University Sports China—the student-athletes from UCLA and Georgia Tech had memorable cultural, educational and athletic experiences that will enrich their lives and provide lifetime memories,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement Tuesday.

The use of the phrase “student-athletes” and not “players” to describe the three UCLA freshmen in both cases is notable. The players will not be expelled from school, but they are suspended from the basketball team indefinitely. None of the three freshmen will be allowed to dress, practice, or travel with the team. However, the players, as well as the two teams involved in the game, were missing school time by taking the weeklong trip to China, and the Ball family also used it as a promotional tour that included pop-up stores for their Big Baller Brand apparel.

“I didn’t exercise my best judgment and I’m sorry for that,” Ball said in his statement. “My family raised me better than that.”

There’s a case to be made that the Pac-12 should not keep sending students-athletes halfway around the world in the middle of the academic year; there’s also a case to be made that the athletes may have received preferential treatment because they were athletes and not, say, tourists. Would Trump have intervened in whatever form he did otherwise? Would the harsh laws of the Chinese government have been carried out if the individuals were not UCLA basketball players?

The possibility of the players spending one to two weeks in jail was reported, but the standard punishment in China for the crimes—three separate instances of shoplifting, all caught on video surveillance—is reportedly three to 10 years. Considering how often student-athletes are punished for accepting even the smallest benefits, it’ll be interesting to see the aftermath of essentially being bailed out by the president.

From a basketball perspective, the indefinite suspension will leave UCLA hurting for depth. Both Riley and Hill are top-50 recruits; LiAngelo has been the headliner of the story thanks to his association with his polarizing father, LaVar, and his NBA rookie brother, Lonzo. LiAngelo’s pro basketball prospects were already not as strong as either of his brothers’, and they will only take a bigger hit should he miss extended time.

“I told my boys that one of them wasn’t going to make it. Because if you’ve got three, only one, maybe two make it to the NBA,” LaVar Ball said in a GQ story in June, noting that LiAngelo would be taken care of regardless of whether he’d make it.

UCLA entered this season as the 21st-ranked team in the country after making the Sweet 16 in last year’s campaign, led by Lonzo. The Bruins are 1-0 after beating Georgia Tech in China last week, a game that also included the Pac-12’s announcement that the China game will continue next year when Yale and Cal will face off in Shanghai.