If you can’t seem to escape LaVar Ball in the news recently, you’re not alone.
Last month, the father of UCLA star and future NBA lottery pick Lonzo Ball made headlines by claiming that his son is better than Steph Curry. Then, he solidified his status as a helicopter parent by saying that Lonzo would “only play for the Lakers,” a statement he later revised after much ridicule. Last week, he told USA Today that he would have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one in his prime. His cockiness has even been immortalized as a meme across the internet.
The media can’t stop criticizing him, but they also can’t stop listening. It’s only a matter of time before LaVar inks a reality TV show deal for his family, which includes: his wife, Tina, a former college basketball player; his son, LiAngelo, a high school senior and UCLA commit; and his youngest boy, LaMelo, a sophomore sharpshooter who scored 92 points in a game back in February.
But all these outlandish comments have distracted from the fact that LaVar is quietly making history by sidestepping NCAA rules regarding amateurism. NCAA bylaws clearly state that a student-athlete is ineligible if he/she “permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.” So LaVar created the Big Baller Brand, the official brand of the Ball family, as a virtual middle finger to this outdated policy.
See, the moment Lonzo officially became a Bruin, he forfeited his publicity rights. Cleverly, though, LaVar still found a way to profit off of his college basketball success. On the Big Baller Brand website, he included pictures and videos of Lonzo, as well as UCLA-colored memorabilia available for purchase. Because LaVar doesn’t pay royalties to the university for selling these products, Big Baller Brand could be seen as being given improper benefits by the school.
Naturally, UCLA’s opponents didn’t turn a blind eye to this supposed NCAA violation. Rival USC complained about the Big Baller Brand, prompting LaVar to make some tweaks to the site before his son could be slapped with NCAA sanctions. Now, the online footage is limited to LiAngelo and LaMelo’s highlights. But despite requests from UCLA, LaVar refused to remove Lonzo’s name from the “About Us” section of the site, and the blue and gold apparel remain for sale.
“Violation or not,” LaVar told TIME, “if it’s really that serious, take my boy, I’ll come get him right now. See if you can win the NCAA championship on your own.”
Neither the NCAA nor UCLA had the guts to challenge that ultimatum—instead, they gave LaVar a pass, supposedly because Big Baller Brand qualifies as a family brand and not a personal one. With the brand surviving its first full year in the college basketball sphere, Lonzo is expected to be the first player ever drafted with his own personal brand. As many news outlets have pointed out, LeBron James signed a seven-year, $90 million deal with Nike before the 2003 NBA Draft, but there’s a catch: James didn’t have close to the same level of ownership that Lonzo will over his brand.
“You don’t have a brand—that’s a brand that Nike created,” LaVar said of James. “Try to go somewhere with that King sign and take it from Nike. You can’t do that. These triple Bs? They’re mine.”
Imagine a world where the best college athletes could form their own brands, where they wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into signing with a multi-billion dollar company like Nike or Adidas right out of college, where the scale would be tipped back ever-so-slightly in favor of student-athletes. That’s what the future might entail if student-athletes earn the right to profit off of their name, image, and likeness. And that’s what we’re getting a glimpse of with the Big Baller Brand, which essentially serves as a clothing line for college basketball’s biggest star.
The NCAA would like you to believe that this professionalism ruins the sanctity of college sports, that the system as we know it would collapse if these athletes were compensated for some of their work. But UCLA is thriving in the face of Ball’s personal branding. The school is experiencing its best attendance numbers in nearly two decades, the team is a contender for the national title, and head coach Steve Alford is earning a whopping $2.6 million per year.
But is the Ball model really a viable option for the future?
“[Nike and Adidas are] Blockbusters, and the Big Baller Brand is Netflix,” LaVar told Colin Cowherd. “And you know what happened to Blockbuster? If you don’t change, guess what’s going to happen. There’s a red box everywhere.”
That analogy is certainly an exaggeration. Big Baller Brand isn’t going to run mammoth companies like Nike and Adidas out of business. But the competition could make them sweat, and it could encourage athletes to gain more control over the fate of their finances.
Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction for college athletes while the bigger battles are being fought in the courtroom. Say what you will about LaVar—that he needs to shut his mouth, or that he’s hurting Lonzo’s chances of success in the NBA, or that Michael Jordan would embarrass him in a game of one-on-one. But exploiting his kids? No, save that label for the NCAA.
Featured Image by Mark J. Terrill / AP Photo