By B. David Ridpath, Ed.D., Ohio University
The basketball Ball brothers have become synonymous with what is right and wrong with college basketball over the past few years. The brothers, Lonzo, LiAngelo and the youngest, LeMelo, are uber talented and certainly capable of helping a team succeed at a high level-whether in college or the pro ranks. What some may consider wrong about this literal and figurative reality show is the heavy handedness direction of their father LaVar Ball, who seems to be more interested in his children’s ability to generate revenue for him and his erstwhile Big Baller brand, which may ultimately ruin LeMelo’s chances at playing NCAA basketball.
Whatever one may think about the senior Ball, he certainly has had some success as a media star and marketer, plus his sons clearly are capable of on and off court success. Some may say he is simply just monetizing their potential to benefit his family. Fair enough, however his interests have at times overridden what likely is best for the future careers of his sons, specifically when it comes to NCAA rules. While Lonzo Ball is certainly on his way to a successful professional career after an outstanding one and done year at UCLA and LiAngelo recently announced he will try out for the NBA’s G League after a stint playing in Lithuania and for his father’s Junior Baller Association (JBA), the main drama continues for the youngest Ball brother, LeMelo and his quest to play NCAA basketball at the Division I level.
LeMelo, who is technically still in high school, albeit after withdrawing from Chino Hills High School in Los Angeles to follow LiAngelo to play professionally in Lithuania. He is now enrolled at Spire Academy in Geneva, Ohio for his last year of “eligibility” and to obtain his high school diploma, all in the hope of one day actually following his brothers and playing college basketball. He actually has no high school eligibility left and Spire is actually defined as a prep school which enables him to play since it is not governed by Ohio High School Association rules. Sounds like a reasonable plan, right? In reality it could be even LaVar Ball and his outsized personality cannot fix this quagmire for his son in. Getting LeMelo Ball to a position where he is eligible to play NCAA basketball is a tall order, but actually not impossible.
The complications are many. The actions of LaVar Ball that could impact the amateur status and NCAA eligibility of LeMelo include using him as a pitchman for the Big Baller Brand, hiring an agent to shop him to overseas pro teams, signing a professional contract, and potentially receiving benefits from participation in Lithuania and the JBA that are considered payment beyond actual and necessary expenses. On the surface these are all pretty much NCAA no-no’s.
The devil is always in the details. LeMelo has pitched a product as a so-called amateur athlete, he signed with an agent and he played professionally-at least by definition. While the Lithuanian team, BC Vytautas claims there was no direct compensation other than acceptable expenses provided to LeMelo, as does LeVar with regard to the JBA. However, promoting the Big Baller brand while playing in the JBA may be the bigger issue, but one that can be overcome.
Marvin Bagley played at Duke even though Nike reportedly installed his dad as coach of a prep school, sponsored an AAU program he launched and as long as Bagley stayed with a Nike-affiliated school, the money would continue to go to his father for his various ventures. This precedent alone can easily knock out this issue as an obstacle in LeMelo’s quest. Many European NCAA players have competed on professional teams overseas and were able to have eligibility restored after sitting out certain amounts of an NCAA season.
What is the Pathway?
LeMelo, a five-star prospect, will undoubtedly have schools salivating to get him eligible. The first step is to file a waiver should the NCAA eligibility center initially declare him ineligible, which is a likely outcome. As stated previously there is precedent to provide LeMelo Ball some relief, but it will likely come with conditions. Playing professionally and not receiving a salary can usually be mitigated with game suspensions. Using Bagley and precedent will help and the marketing of Big Baller Brand may not be too high of a mountain to climb.
The toughest aspect to overcome for Ball is going to be signing with an agent. NCAA Bylaw 12.3.1, which covers amateurism issues is clear on basketball prospects and agents. The bylaw language is straight forward and states, “an individual who retains an agent shall lose amateur status” and “be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport.”
Given this, an appeal of this issue and getting a positive result is extremely challenging. Even though the NCAA rule that prohibits signing with an agent will change on July 1st for elite athletes as determined by USA basketball, the NCAA will be bound by current rules in its decision making. Still the NCAA has demonstrated common sense in the past and provided leniency by finding decisions that benefit the student. If LeMelo is going to play in 2019-20 it will likely be after repaying some money to a charity to counter any marketing benefit and/or sit out a specified number of games for professional participation including signing with an agent. This likely means if LeMelo Ball gets to play it will likely be for an abbreviated one and done season. However, many college teams will take a chance with the NCAA process, even if it only means LeMelo playing for a few games or ultimately not being able to play at all-it will be worth the effort.