By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) That the NCAA is utter garbage as an organization is well-documented, both in this space and abroad. It’s hard to surprise me when they come up with some draconian reason for suspending a (vaguely student) athlete. The Richmond baseball players getting suspended in March for playing fantasy football made me sigh, but it’s not anything I don’t expect. Much of my shock and awe died in the days of a college golfer having to pay $20 in restitution for using a university hose to wash her car.
But I can still be taken down interesting corridors of my soul when it comes to the NCAA. It’s so incredibly detestable and unworthy of any human warmth, but the enemy of my enemy will become my strange bedfellow.
As this Labor Day weekend was full of some excellent college football involving six- and seven-figure coaches overseeing indentured servitude, LaVar Ball was asked about his 11th-grade son, LaMelo, having possible college eligibility issues if the youngest Ball boy has his own sneaker.
“He’s going to have a shoe,” LaVar told ESPN on Saturday. “NCAA ain’t going to tell me s—. Because they’re not my boss. That’s what they do, but they’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, LaVar, you can’t bring that shoe out until we tell you.’ What? Something that I’m doing for my family? That’s mine? I’m not under no umbrella.”
Everybody meet LaVar Ball, my strange bedfellow. He’s right — the NCAA can’t tell him what to do. And his kid should be allowed to have his own shoe and even profit off his name. We’ve learned by now that if LaVar wants to do something, he’s going to do it, and his sons will keep on playing ball, literally and figuratively. And that it might involve sticking it to the NCAA is pretty awesome, regardless of your opinion of the Balls as people.
But what of master Collegiate Athletic?
“Generally speaking,” the NCAA told ESPN’s Darren Rovell, “a college athlete or prospect paid for use of their athletics reputation or ability risks their future eligibility in that sport.”
So that’s an unsure paternalistic threat. Whatever.
“This includes profiting from the sale of items bearing the young person’s name,” NCAA spokesperson Emily James told Rovell. “NCAA rules, however, do allow prospects to promote commercial products prior to enrollment, provided it is not for pay.”
That’s a bit more interesting. If father Ball is officially making the money on young Ball’s name on a shoe, does it violate NCAA rules? More importantly, maybe we shouldn’t debate a potential rules violation when the rule is something Dickens would write in a novel if he were alive today.
“They’re not going to tell me what I can do for my son and my family,” Ball told ESPN. “He’s not even in the NCAA, and that’s the first thing they’re coming up with instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s a nice shoe. Your dad just gave a shoe to him, a signature shoe that he can play in that’s to his specifications.’ They’re not looking at that part. They’re looking at, ‘How can we make it negative?’ By saying, ‘Oh, he’s got to be ineligible for that. Gotta be.’ No, it never happened before, so what are you saying?”
This is the peculiar beauty of LaVar and his stupid-like-a-fox bombastic, even if he should refrain from crossing sexist lines with it. He’s caught the NCAA in a tough spot, as the organization knows that a player hasn’t tried to enter college sports with his or her name already on athletic equipment for sale. Greg Anthony in 1991 gave up his scholarship while already playing at UNLV because he preferred the money he was making in a business venture at the time. Strange that you don’t hear much about such entrepreneurship from fans who believe college sports are good as is (and would reflexively hate LaVar) or from other people paid to talk about how great college athletics are for the cultivating of fine people.
There’s clearly no specific rule about what the Balls are doing based on the NCAA’s response so far. In two years, unless they make some new rule specifically because of this without saying it’s specifically because of this — which would be so NCAA and would likely be met with a legal problem — they’re going to be in quite the interesting spot when LaMelo, who has committed to UCLA already, looks to join the Bruins. Which is to say, the NCAA is sort of screwed, which is to say what LaVar is doing is super great.
Now, a shoe named for a high schooler that costs $395 as LaMelo’s does is a different moral argument. But exposing the NCAA as hypocritical and fascist with only their own financial interests mattering is good and necessary. Which strangely would make LaVar Ball good and necessary if he were to kick a crack in the dyke that college athletics has against participants being human beings.
Should the NCAA figure out some way to pinch LaMelo, well…
“We’ll sit out a year or two,” LaVar told ESPN. “Just get stronger and faster, and then go into (NBA training) camp as a free agent. He already got the narrative — he can play, he can play. You see what he’s doing at 15 and 16. Don’t think that by the time he gets 17, 18 that he ain’t going to be 10 times better than what he is now. And everybody says, ‘Oh, he got to gain more weight.’ Why? What you have to do is be strong. It ain’t about the weight. It’s about the strength.”
What if LaMelo plays overseas or enters NBA free agency after sitting out? What if LaVar Ball further exposes another loophole the NCAA hates to admit that has been exposed by NBA players like Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson, who all played overseas instead of pretending to be student-athletes and then became first-round draft picks. Only this time LaVar would be using his much more prominent voice than that of a dime-a-dozen high school prospect who wants to get paid rather than ply his trade for the exchange of an education he doesn’t want and doesn’t really get anyway. Maybe LaVar and LaMelo don’t need college hoops.
“If we already got this narrative of being a good player and a top-10 pick as a high schooler, LaVar said, “if you go to college and you don’t perform, you can’t do nothing but hurt yourself. So what I’m saying is, I’m not going to make it a big deal where I’m like, Melo definitely has to go to college in order for him to succeed. You just gotta be ready to play and do your job.”
LaVar Ball is more than ready to play the NCAA’s game. And his job of cultivating his sons’ pro careers has also taken on the additional role of anti-hero. Probably not the one we expected, but anyone who exposes the NCAA for the labor exploiter it is certainly welcome.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.