In the TV show Friday Night Lights, we see glimpses of the seedy underbelly of high school football in the state of Texas. As noble as head coach Eric Taylor is, there is always a parent of an athlete there to make the coach's life a living hell. For Coach Taylor, Joe McCoy was that dad. Father to J.D., freshman QB for the Dillon Panthers, Joe was going to do all he could to let Coach Taylor, the town of Dillon, and all of America know just how special his boy was. Joe McCoy was a seminal jerk, the type often caricatured by sports shows, books, and movies. But for all the fictional Joe McCoys of the world, we now have their real world protégé: Lavar Ball.
Lavar Ball is a terrible parent. Or maybe he's just a super great dad who really just loves his boys. Lavar's oldest son is Lonzo Ball, a freshman guard for UCLA, and a player many regard as a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Then there are two other sons, one a high school senior committed to play at UCLA (Gelo) and a high school sophomore that's also planning to play for the Bruins (Melo). Yes, that's the Melo Ball that scored 92 points in a game this year.
The Ball family is made up of talented athletes. Dad played for Washington State back in the 80's, and mom is a PE teacher. On the surface, they seem like your average family that has kids playing at a high level in sports. Plenty of moms and dads have sons being actively recruited on the AAU circuit. No big deal.
What sets the Ball family apart is Lavar's nauseating promotion of his sons' talents. He may be good for a sound bite, but Papa Ball has said some downright ludicrous things recently. Just as an example, on a recent appearance on Colin Cowherd's show, Lavar insinuated the Golden State Warriors could be even better if it was his son Lonzo running point for Steve Kerr instead of Stephen Curry. Yes, the two-time-MVP-and-best-three-point-shooter-in-basketball-history Stephen Curry. Maybe they should let the front office for the Warriors know. I'm sure the Nets will take Curry in a trade for the #1 overall pick so Golden State can bring Lonzo aboard.
But that's not the thing that makes Lavar Ball so absurd. Neither is his veiled demand that only the Lakers draft his son, or his mind-boggling belief that he could have beaten Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one back in the day.
What's most alarming is that Lavar has a brand, the Big Ballers brand, which he has already trademarked and patented. This brand has its own logo and can be seen being worn by all three sons. And despite having two sons that still use lockers to store their things and need parental permission for field trips, Lavar has set negotiating terms for shoe contracts for his sons. His asking price? $1,000,000,000.
That's One. Billion. Dollars.
If you just laughed or threw up in your mouth a little, then you had an appropriate reaction. Lavar Ball’s valuation of his three sons’ marketability for shoes is one billion dollars. If you think that’s a preposterous amount of money, then you’re right. If you think this is one of the more egregious stories of child exploitation, then you’re right. If you think Lavar Ball is over the top, you’re right.
His sons are the literal sun he orbits around. He’s focused on their basketball skills and getting them prestige and, yes, money. Lavar Ball is focused on building a brand. We are all aware of branding and how essential it is for companies these days. Has Papa Ball blurred the line between parent and agent?
Let’s look for a moment at the point Lavar Ball is (we think) trying to make. By exploiting the talents of his children, he’s benefitting his family before someone else snatches that chance from him. He stated in response to criticism he’s faced regarding exploiting his kids that he’s essentially just doing what UCLA is.
And dang it, he’s right.
UCLA’s Head Coach Steve Alford has made an average of $89,655 dollars per each of his 29 wins this year. How much money does Lonzo Ball make for helping Alford get those 29 wins? A free education and per diem money for road trips to Oregon and Colorado.
Not to mention the fact that UCLA’s men’s basketball program brings in an annual revenue of roughly $12.6 million. That’s a lot of money going around for the front office folks, admin staff, and coaches. And none for the players.
But let’s not get too far off on a rabbit trail of the “pay for play” argument. We created Lavar Ball. We are the sports fans who will drop $150 a month on cable to watch a half-dozen ESPN channels. We’re the ones poring over NCAA brackets and wagering on athletes that can’t wager on themselves. We are the ones throwing $200 at Michael Jordan for a pair of Nikes with his logo on them. Lavar Ball is our fault.
The world of youth sports is filled with lesser known Lavar Balls, parents who are so emotionally and financially wrapped up in their kid’s athletic ability that it becomes the entirety of their child. It becomes their identity. How do we shift from that? We get upset as it is if a pro athlete speaks up on any non-sports issue as it is. “Just shut up and play basketball.” That’s your value. What you can do with a ball. Nothing else.
Lavar Ball isn’t the first to treat kids like miniature money-makers. He’s not setting any precedent by valuing athleticism above everything else. In his book Play Their Hearts Out, George Dohrmann tells a story of a sleazy AAU coach in California, Coach Keller. In one part of the book, Dohrmann is riding with Coach Joe Keller while a kid named Demetrius was asleep in the backseat. Demetrius was the star of Keller’s team, and a sure shot for the NBA. The following interaction takes place:
“Joe, what happens if D [Demetrius] doesn’t make the NBA?” I asked.
Keller shot me a stare as if I had insulted his wife. It was the possibility you dared not speak of. “Now, why would you say that?”
“Well, what if he doesn’t?”
Keller thought for a moment and, before he answered, looked to the backseat to make sure Demetrius was still asleep. He was lying on his side, facing the front, and his hands were wrapped together and tucked under his cheek. He looked like a little boy lost in his dreams.
“Well, then all this would have been a waste of time,” Keller said. “Demetrius would have been a bad investment.”
One can only hope Lavar Ball will never view any of his three sons this way. One can only hope none of us ever treat our children as any type of investment, lest we become the inspiration for maniac parent on some TV drama.