As the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off this week, LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of UCLA freshman star Lonzo Ball, is primed to take his place alongside Richard Williams and Earl Woods in the pantheon of overzealous sports dads. Ball has already taken shots at Charles Barkley and said his 19-year-old son is a better player than reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry––and doubled-down on the claim in a telephone interview with TIME.
“To me Zo is the best player in the world,” LaVar says. Yes, even better than all-stars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. “I don’t know if he can beat them one on one,” Ball says, conceding the NBA stars are stronger than his son, the Pac-12 player of the year and an expected top pick in the upcoming NBA draft. “But I know he can beat them 5 on 5.”
Why pay any mind to this carnival barking? Because in the process of calling attention to himself and his family, Ball is doing something far more consequential: exposing the hypocrisy of big-time college athletics.
The roots of Ball’s stealth war on the the NCAA’s outdated amateurism rules date to last spring, when he launched Big Baller Brand, a website that sells not-inexpensive apparel with a “BBB” logo. The brand is built to capitalize on the basketball prowess of Ball’s kids: Lonzo and his younger brothers LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 15, both high school stars who have also committed to play for UCLA. “It’s the brand I created for my boys,” LaVar told TIME. “Each one of the Bs represents my boys … Lonzo’s going to be the first one drafted with his own brand.”
On March 7, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registered the Big Baller Brand trademark for athletic apparel. Until just a few weeks ago, LaVar says a picture of all three Ball brothers was featured on the brand’s website, along with videos of their on-court exploits. And its Twitter page refers to the operation as the “official Brand of the Ball Family.”
What’s wrong with that? Well, NCAA bylaws state that “after becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual … 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.”
In other words, as long as Lonzo plays for UCLA, he forfeits the chance to profit from his success. But what if a shrewd family member devised a way to skirt those outmoded rules? LaVar acknowledges that’s exactly what he’s up to: “It’s a way around it what we’re doing,” he says.
Legal experts consulted by TIME believe that Big Baller Brand likely runs afoul of NCAA rules. “The use of photographs of Lonzo and footage of his on-court exploits on a website selling branded apparel looks like a pretty clear-cut violation of NCAA rules,” says Alexandra Roberts, a law professor and intellectual property specialist at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s a use that Lonzo apparently permitted, and that promotes the sale of commercial goods.”
The Big Baller Brand site also sells a hat in UCLA’s blue and gold colors. “It looks like the type of use for which UCLA would require a license agreement,” says Roberts. Ball says he hasn’t paid any royalties to UCLA––which Roberts says could be problematic. “Refraining from complaining or charging a licensing fee, i.e. allowing the Balls to use UCLA trademarks when the university doesn’t permit others to do so could be an improper benefit to Ball’s family in contravention of NCAA rules,” Roberts says.
UCLA and the NCAA have received complaints about Ball’s venture. After rival school USC raised questions about the brand’s site, according to LaVar, UCLA asked LaVar to remove Lonzo’s picture and videos that feature him. (A USC spokesman says UCLA told them it was aware of the site, and was working to resolve any issues). He did so, but says he drew the line at UCLA’s request to take Lonzo’s name off the About Us section. “Violation or not,” LaVar says, “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.”
Yet the NCAA, which has suspended players for accepting $150 worth of groceries, hasn’t disciplined UCLA’s young star. In a joint statement in response to inquiries about Big Baller Brand, the NCAA and UCLA said: “Like many schools, UCLA has frequently worked with the NCAA to determine what is and is not allowed within the member-adopted rules. While neither the NCAA nor UCLA will address details of a specific student-athlete’s situation, both are comfortable the appropriate measures have been taken to review the potential issues under NCAA rules and processes regarding Lonzo Ball. As is standard practice, both will continue to work together to monitor this matter.”
And this is where LaVar deserves a tip of the cap. I’ve long made the case that top college athletes should have the right to compensation. For years, the NCAA has argued if college athletes act as professionals, fans will become turned off and tune out, imperiling the economics of the entire enterprise. But along comes Ball, a player who, in spirit at least, has his own apparel company. No enterprise could be more outright commercial, more professional, in nature. But despite all the personal branding, UCLA hoops is doing just fine (as is its coach Steve Alford, who makes $2.6 million per year): attendance is up and the team is once-again a national contender. Nor is the NCAA exactly struggling. Last April the organization signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension of a multimedia rights deal with CBS and Turner to show their flagship amateur basketball tournament.
With Big Baller Brand, Ball has found a shrewd way to do an end-run around the NCAA’s sanctimony and position his family to make money in the process. Other college athletes may want to take notice. “People are talking about, oh, LaVar is exploiting his kid,” says LaVar. “Wait a minute. How do you exploit something that’s yours? Exploiting something is making money off of something that’s not yours. Basically that’s all UCLA is doing.”
Forget Ball’s braggadocio. His real contribution is poking one more hole in the flimsy case for amateurism, and giving athletes an opening to grab a fairer share.