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Case to be reviewed? Case should be closed on UCLA basketball players

It was an extraordinary admission of wrongdoing accompanied by a tepid announcement of punishment.

The three UCLA freshman basketball players didn’t steal items from just one Chinese store, but three stores. Their loot was discovered only after police searched bags in the team bus and hotel. They were released back to the United States not for lack of evidence, but through the intervention of two presidents.

Yet they could be playing for the Bruins this season.

During a crowded Pauley Pavilion news conference in which no questions were allowed, plenty of questions were raised Wednesday when LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley publicly confessed to shoplifting, apologized, and then walked away in hopes of returning soon.

They should have been suspended for the season, but they weren’t, at least not yet. UCLA could have made an ethical statement with both power and precedent but demurred.

And on a sidewalk outside of Pauley, the statue of John Wooden might have pulled the rolled-up program in his hand over his face.

“These three young men will remain suspended indefinitely from our program as we work through the review process with the university’s office of student conduct,’’ said coach Steve Alford, reading from a statement. “During that indefinite suspension, they will not travel with the team, nor will they suit up for home games. At some point, they may be permitted to join team workouts, practice and meetings, but that timeline is yet to be determined.’’

Office of student conduct? Since when does that have anything to do with how Alford runs the basketball team? In 2010, Rick Neuheisel unilaterally suspended three freshmen from the UCLA football team for an entire season when they were caught stealing a backpack.

Timeline? Didn’t these three entitled athletes forfeit their right to a timeline? The only relevant timeline was offered earlier Wednesday morning by President Trump who, in a tweet noted that without his intervention they were, “headed for 10 years in jail!’’

“We continue to review the matter in collaboration with the office of student conduct as we do with all cases related to misconduct with students,’’ said athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who also read from a statement. “We will work together and prudently come to some resolution on this matter in short order.’’

This resolution should have already been made. Considering the repetitiveness of the crime, and given the gravity of the international incident it caused, a season-long suspension should have been an easy call.

Yet on a day when UCLA needed to stand firm, it offered an escape clause. When it could have closed the door on this incident until next season — the players simply could have redshirted and retained four years of eligibility — they left open for a possible early return.

“These young men are going to have to prove [by] their words and actions that this isn’t who they are, and that they will not let their identity be defined by this incident,’’ Alford said.

UCLA is now in the same position. The university will be challenged not to let its identity be defined by this incident. People aren’t just going to forget about these three young men. Every step in their possible return will be monitored. If they actually do come back to play, it will be the most controversial moment of the season, and outside influences will be faced with some of the questions that were avoided on Wednesday.

On a sheet behind the five speakers at the news conference was a UCLA banner highlighted by the name of two sponsors. Under Armour gave UCLA $280 million. Would that company support the deployment of athletes who admitted to wrongdoing in a foreign country? Toyo Tires is the other sponsor, and here’s wondering whether the Cypress-based firm also endorses tough talk followed by uncertain action.

Even though the general facts of the case were known, the details revealed by Guerrero were startling.

At the end of the first full day of UCLA’s trip to China last week, the players were given 90 minutes of free time to roam the area around their Hangzhou hotel. During that time, on a Monday night, the three freshman visited several high-end shops adjacent to the hotel and stole items from three of the stores.

“They took the items from three of those stores without paying for them, they then returned to the team hotel with those items,’’ Guerrero acknowledged.

The next morning, police arrived at the hotel and interviewed players before searching their bags and identifying the three freshmen as the suspects. They were arrested and escorted to a local police station, where they remained until the following morning, when they were bailed out for approximately $2,200. The players surrendered their passports and agreed to travel restrictions, with UCLA officials determining that they could not leave the hotel.

UCLA played Georgia Tech in Shanghai on Friday, and flew back to the United States on Saturday. The detained players were allowed to return on Tuesday.

“While the charges against the students were ultimately withdrawn, Jalen, Cody and Gelo did admit to breaking the law,’’ Guerrero said.

Hill, 17, Ball, 18, and Riley, 19, offered prepared apologies Wednesday and seemed appreciative for their freedom. They also thanked many people, including the Chinese police and, yes, President Trump, who had appealed to Chinese President Xi Jinping on their behalf.

Said Hill: “I’m sorry for shoplifting, what I did was stupid, there’s just no other way to put it.’’

Said Riley: “I take full responsibility for the mistake I made, shoplifting … to President Trump and the United States government, thank you for taking the time to intervene on our behalf.’’

Said Ball: “We’re young men; however, it’s not an excuse for making a really stupid decision.’’

On Wednesday, it was the actions of UCLA officials that perplexed.

“They are good young men who exercised an inexcusable lack of judgment,’’ Alford said.

Well, not entirely inexcusable, if they can still play basketball for the Bruins this season.

“Their actions in China are contrary to our true Bruin values in UCLA athletics and quite frankly are unacceptable,’’ Guerrero said.

Well, for now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

The original version of this article said former football coach Rick Neuheisel suspended three players who had been caught shoplifting. The players were caught stealing a backpack from an on-campus locker.
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