The three UCLA basketball players accused of shoplifting in China arrived home on Tuesday and nobody was happier and more excited than me. It was all I could to do to keep from meeting them at the airport and driving them back to campus. Why? Because I thought yesterday would be the last time I would ever have to talk about them and frankly, that was the best news I’d heard in a long time.

And just as I was about to start planning a parade through downtown LA to celebrate the fact that we’d never have to talk about this whole thing again, they went and had a press conference. Damn it!

The three players threw on matching polo shirts and issued statements yesterday. Here’s a sampling, starting with Cody Riley: “I want to start out by saying how embarrassed and ashamed I am to disappoint my family, my teammates, my coaches and the entire UCLA family. I can assure you that I will never do anything again to jeopardize UCLA’s reputation or my own.”

Then it was LiAngelo Ball’s opportunity: “I’m sorry for stealing from the stores in China. I didn’t exercise my best judgment and I was wrong for that. I apologize to my family, my coaches, my teammates and UCLA for letting you down. I also apologize to the people of China for causing them so much trouble. I’m a young man, however, it’s not an excuse for making such a stupid decision.”

And then Jalen Hill: “What I did was stupid, there’s no other way to put it. I hope you can forgive my stupid and childish actions.”

While they didn’t take questions, they came off as remorseful. Coached up? Maybe. Who knows. Not sure that it matters. Not sure how many teenagers wouldn’t need to be coached up before rolling out to a press conference like that. The key thing was they didn’t show up to that presser and blow it off.

The three players admitted to shoplifting from not one, but three stores and have been suspended indefinitely. That means no practicing, no traveling to games, and no wearing UCLA apparel during games. As for what indefinitely means, well, that’s a different story. The question is always going to be, does the punishment fit the crime? And the answer is, that’s hard to say.

What is the appropriate punishment for shoplifting? Get popped grabbing some stuff at a Walgreens in Westwood and you’re probably held out during warmups. Maybe you miss a half or a full game if you got something really nice. Get nabbed trying to steal sunglasses and other items in China, and it’s going to be different, especially since it was a particularly dumb and embarrassing incident.

But anyone who’s suggesting that they should be kicked out of school or suspended for the entire season is overreacting. Why don’t you just ban them from the sport of basketball for life? No playing basketball, no watching basketball, and no thinking about basketball for the rest of their days.

The truth is, there are athletes who get arrested for DUI, for example, who don’t get kicked out of school or suspended for an entire season and that’s a hell of a lot worse than shoplifting. Shoplift and you embarrass yourself and your school. Drive under the influence and you put everyone at risk.

There isn’t a manual for this. You can’t look up the chart and say, okay, shoplifting in three stores in China equals X number of games suspended. But a couple games is too few and a whole season is too much. Something in the neighborhood of ten to twelve seems fine. Let’s just say that and move on.

Because the real punishment is for anyone else who has to cover this story. If we never talk about this again, it will be too soon. In fact, if we’re talking about this next week or next month, I’m going to start thinking that I’m getting punished more than the players.


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