Before Ball There Was Me

The first thought I had when news broke about the alleged store thefts in China by UCLA freshman basketball player LiAngelo Ball and two teammates was not about him or them, but me. Apart from the alleged thefts happening in a foreign country and the space of decades in time, it was almost a carbon copy of the situation I faced as a star football player at a Los Angeles high school.

I and a couple of other football buddies were charged with theft from a local department store. We were paraded out of the store in handcuffs by four LAPD officers. At the local station, we were grilled by detectives on the alleged theft. I was given a stern warning that I would be prosecuted if I didn’t confess. I did. I was released later that evening. However, that did not end the ordeal. When I was being taken from the store in cuffs, one of the parents of one of my football teammates spotted me. She stared in disbelief as I was being led away. The next day, this was the buzz on the campus, I was called into the coach’s office. I was grilled again by the coach and the vice principal on my actions and the detention. I was threatened with suspension from the team and from class for several days. It did not go any further than the threat and a warning. There was a reason ― I was a star lineman, and was one of the leaders in number of tackles. I was just too valuable to cut loose even for one game. This less-than-a-hand slap punishment was done almost with a wink and a nod.

This little drama with crime, the police, school officials and the coaches reinforced an attitude that was already deeply ingrained in me and the other start performers on the team. We were special. We could pretty much do what we wanted without fear of punishment as long as we were a valued sports commodity. I rarely carried a book, let alone cracked it. I knew that all I had to do was go through the motions in the classroom, and I would be assured of passing.

This heavy sense of entitlement and a virtual free pass to do whatever I pleased without any real fear of repercussion or punishment was like living in fairy tale land. This total dimmed my sense of responsibility, respect for rules and the law, and ethical behavior. The athletic pedestal, I, and the others, were on didn’t dim. It obliterated our moral compass. The entitlement syndrome that I, and other top athletes, had was almost unshakeable and in far too many other cases took a huge tool on the lives of several other top athletes at the school. They also were pampered, coddled, and sheltered so long that once there playing days were over they nose-dived into a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse, job loss and repeated run ins with the law.

It was no surprise then that Trump would intervene on behalf of the three UCLA players to secure their release. it was no surprise that Chinese authorities quickly agreed to their release. It will be no surprise if the three receive a hand slap punishment for their alleged crimes.

Ball is a touted athlete. His father, through his outrageous self-promotion and commercialism of his sons, has virtually insured that NCAA and UCLA officials will tread very carefully on what kind of discipline they mete out to the players. The NCAA, for its part, has been all over the map in how it punishes schools for violations of its athlete discipline rules and guidelines. It pretty much leaves the discipline game to the schools. That almost always means that player punishment for infractions is dumped back into the laps of coaches. These are the same coaches who know their big salaries, coaching tenure and future coaching prospects depend on one thing and one thing only ― how many “Ws” is on their resume. University presidents and top officials also know the importance of the bushels of dollars and prestige that a successful, well-oiled football or basketball program can bring to their institution. And don’t think the top players don’t know that there wouldn’t be much of an athletic program at a major university without their star power on the field or the court.

There is already a hint of a less than aggressive takedown of Ball and the other players. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott issued the obligatory statement of regret over the action of the players, and then shut down any query about what could happen with the limp retort that, “We will continue to closely monitor the situation.” The UCLA coaches, athletic director and chancellor were even more close mouthed.

The bigger question for me is did the athletes get it? That entitlement from athletic stardom and grooming has a deep pitfall. One that I fell into but fortunately climbed out of. We’ll see with them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is, The impeachment of President Trump? (Amazon Kindle) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.