An Open Letter to the Chancellor and Athletic Director at UCLA

November 15th, 2017 | by Karen Gross
An Open Letter to the Chancellor and Athletic Director at UCLA


Dear Chancellor Block and AD Guerrero:

First, let me begin by saying that I am glad (and I am sure you are relieved) that your three first year student-athletes have been released from China and are back or headed back to Los Angeles.

As a past college president, advisor to the US Department of Education and a serious fan of collegiate athletics, most particularly men’s basketball, I have been following with both interest and concern the saga of these collegiate men’s basketball players who were — until very recently — detained in China.  

To be sure, the facts are not all known; perhaps they never will be.  But, I have some questions that would help me and I assume others reflect on this situation and other similar and future situations.  

For ease, I have numbered my questions but that does not speak to the importance of the issues raised by each question.

1. What wisdom, warnings and cross-cultural information were shared with the UCLA Men’s Basketball Team (the Team) before their departure in China?  Perhaps I am wrong but I assume this was the first international travel for many members of the Team.  And, given the current tensions between the US and China (and North Korea), I assume these student-athletes were prepped not just to play but to represent your University and our nation in ways that would do both proud.

2. Given the duration of this trip, I assume that there were academic personnel with the Team to ensure that the student-athletes completed their coursework in the classes they were missing. This trip was not held as best as I can tell during a school break.  What type of academic support were the detained students receiving?  And, I have to wonder given their detainment whether they will have lost so much “seat time” in the classes in which they are enrolled that they will not get academic credit for this semester.  Is that accurate?

3. Given the costs of this type of trip, I am interested in learning who or what entity was paying for the hotel in China where the three students accused of shoplifting were staying.  I gather there were UCLA personnel who stayed behind; who or what entity was paying for their stay?  Who or what entity was paying for food, legal services, and translation?  

4. When students at UCLA are charged with shoplifting (off campus and in the USA), what is the common disciplinary approach of the University? Would the University even learn of any such charges or conviction if they occurred off campus?  Would these charged/convicted students be prohibited from retaining any scholarship?  Would they be allowed to play on any athletic team?  Would they be permitted to remain in campus housing?

5. Who makes disciplinary decisions on the UCLA campus and does the same process apply to all students, whether or not they are athletes?  Is there a special athletic Code of Conduct to which players must subscribe to sustain their membership on a team?  Can coaches discipline, even if the University does not, by taking away scholarships or suspending a student-athlete from the team or even the University?

6. Has UCLA self-reported this incident to the NCAA and how does this reporting affect UCLA’s current relationship and status with the NCAA?

7. I gather one of the student-athletes had their parents with them in China (although perhaps not in the same locale within China at all times).  I am interested in learning how the parents or guardians of the other two students were being informed of and assisted with the current situation, including their concerns about the well-being of their sons.

8. How is the Team, now that they are back in the US, handling the fact that three of their teammates were detained in China?  Have they been questioned or offered psychological assistance or other support?  I am curious as to their reaction upon the return of these students.

9. Please share whether one or both of you have seen any videos of the alleged shoplifting.  Also, who negotiated with the Chinese authorities on behalf of the students and the University?  Do you attribute their release to the US President?

10. Are there lessons learned (and still to be learned) about athletic team travel?  What would you do differently to avoid the detention for shoplifting that allegedly occurred?  Will you share those learnings with the community (your own or broader)?

11. When these three formerly detained student-athletes return to US soil, will they immediately return to campus?  Will they be “debriefed” and by whom? Will they get psychological support?  Will they simply return to the Team and to class and to their dorms?

I have always thought that we have an odd approach to punishment within the academy.  We seem to punish without a rehabilitative approach.  For example, rather than kicking some students off campus for wrongs committed (depending on the wrong), what about keeping the students on campus and creating teachable moments?  

With truancy in high school, we make the mistake of punishing the truant students by keeping them out of school.  Why don’t we force them to be at school with real learning opportunities with teachers in and outside the classroom?

I understand there is much that is presently unknown. I appreciate the information and knowledge gaps but now with the early and safe return of the three UCLA student-athletes detained in China, perhaps some added light can be shed on the situation.

But, here is my point and the point of my questions.  There is an opportunity for learning here – for your institution and for other institutions, for your three detained athletes, for the Team and for other students across our nation for whom shoplifting and other crimes are possible and from which they can learn before their mistakes before too much permanent harm is incurred.

I get that playing well and entering the NBA are the goals of many members of the Team.  I appreciate their ambition.  But, something is sorely amiss when, apparently, three new students steal in the foreign nation.  How important are sunglasses anyway?  Yet another question.  And, where are the infamous shoplifted items now?

Your answers and thoughts would be welcomed and appreciated, capable too of improving the lives of others and enabling deep reflection on a situation involving your students that is, by any measure, suboptimal.



Karen Gross

About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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