Let me ask you this: What if LiAngelo's last name weren't Ball?
What if we were talking about a similar UCLA freshman basketball player – one who was also not as a top-100 recruit, who was also a bit player on this year's UCLA team, who was also considered a four-year college player instead of a one-and-done player – whose name was LiAngelo Jones?
Would we still be talking about LiAngelo Jones 10 days after he and two equally no-name student-athletes were detained in China afterduring a team-sponsored trip to China? Would we demand these players' suspension be season-long -- or even be turned into an expulsion -- if one of them didn't have over the past year? Would you be clicking on this story if the crime were the same but the circumstances around it -- the divisive family name, the divisive politics between China and the United States, the president intervening and then weighing in on Twitter, the social-media-circus atmosphere of 2017 America -- were all different?
(And yes,, every bit what you'd expect it to be.)
I'm not going to pretend to know what is thefor LiAngelo Ball and his two partners in crime. (By the way, did you know they have names, too? Probably not, because every headline mentions " ." Anyway, it's Jalen Hill and Cody Riley.) Should it be on the extreme end, a season-long suspension, perhaps even expulsion? Should it be more measured, like giving them an 11-game suspension that would have them back on the team after Christmas and in time for conference play, and pair that suspension with community service and other ways they can regain the trust of their teammates, their coaches and their campus community? Or should it be more lenient – say, by turning that indefinite suspension into a mere three-game suspension – because the vast public shaming these three players have brought upon themselves during the past 10 days ought to be considered part of the punishment?
This isn't very 2017-hot-sports-take-y of me, but truly: I don't know. Well-meaning people can argue any of these options.
What I do know is this: The people who want LiAngelo Ball's head served on a platter aren't just asking for that because he (and his friends!) broke a law, or because they broke a law in a foreign country, or because they broke one of the Ten Commandments. This goes far beyond three young men doing a thing that's wrong, wrong, wrong.
The level of righteous indignation directed toward 18-year-old LiAngelo Ball has as much to do with what they did as with the cultural and political moment they are caught in.
Let's get one obvious rebuttal out of the way first: Yes, LaVar Ball -- the loud and obnoxious LaVar Ball, the reality star and marketing genius LaVar Ball, the "" and "Zo is the best player in the world" LaVar Ball – laid the groundwork for this national fixation on his middle son's shoplifting crime. LaVar Ball, with his Big Baller Brand shoes and his Big Baller Brand mouth, upped the ante on his sons' futures. Nobody would be looking at Lonzo Ball's rollercoaster first month with the Los Angeles Lakers as evidence that he's a "bust" if it weren't for his father preaching he's already better than Stephen Curry. And the story of the "China Three" might have exited our consciousness already if it weren't for the desire to knock the Ball family off their mountaintop.
America in 2017 is a weird place: We are in many ways defined by reality television culture, and yet we use "reality TV star" as a slur of intellectual emptiness, all the while rooting for the public and embarrassing downfall of those reality same TV stars.
And so what I'd ask for is this: Not to bring the hammer down on LiAngelo Ball to get some sort of vengeance against his father. And not to let LiAngelo Ball escape punishment because he – or at least, his family – is rich and famous. It's time for some legal clichés here: Lady Justice must be blind, and justice should disregard matters of wealth, power or family name. The sins of a father -- if we want to call LaVar Ball's arrogance and self-absorption "sins" -- should not be visited upon his son, and certainly not upon his son's two cohorts.
Let's treat LiAngelo Ball as if he were LiAngelo Jones. Because only then can UCLA -- and the rest of us who remain fixated on the Ball family soap opera -- come to a conclusion that's fair, that's just, and that will allow us to move on from this ugly incident.
Most of all, let's keep all this in perspective. NBC Sports' Rob Dauster tweeted this shortly after UCLA's press conference announcing the indefinite suspensions this week: "Cmon. No one is ever this up in arms when a player gets, say, a three-game suspension for a DUI. That's INFINITELY worse than shoplifting."
He's right. This story, like so many stories of relatively minor athlete indiscretions in collegiate sports (compared to, you know, sexual assault or drunk driving or the like), is about student-athletes, not famous professional athletes. And the fact that LiAngelo Ball's family name has elevated him to a celebrity status that no other no-name 18-year-old student-athlete has ever had should not distract us, or UCLA, from what the goal should be here: A teaching moment and a learning moment, not a moment of societal vengeance.