LaMelo Ball, youngest son of LaVar Ball and brother of Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, might be coming to a high school gym or college arena near you. The much-traveled youngest Ball brother recently announced his desire to play college basketball and enrolled at an Ohio high school.
Despite hurdles, including participation with a professional team in Lithuania last year, Ball at least has a plausible avenue to NCAA eligibility, even if it is a long shot.
In October 2017, Ball was a highly ranked high school basketball prospect, having verbally committed to play at UCLA since age 13. What happened next for Ball was untraditional, to say the least.
First, his father LaVar pulled him out from Chino Hills High School in California. Initially, the plan was for Ball to be home schooled and train for a professional career, targeting eligibility for the 2020 NBA draft, which would be the soonest Ball could be eligible under NBA rules.
This, in and of itself, was not unprecedented, but Ball and his older brother LiAngelo then signed with NBA agent Harrison Gaines and began playing with Lithuanian professional team BC Vytautas.
Ball apparently signed a contract with the team, but it is unclear what, if any, compensation he received thereunder.
In conjunction with this move, Ball was also featured in several marketing activities for his family’s clothing and shoe line, Big Baller Brand (BBB). There was a set of shoes with LaMelo’s name on them, and he appeared in several advertisements for BBB products.
Again, it is unclear what compensation Ball received for this, and the fact that BBB is his father’s company blurs lines even further.
Thus, generally, there are three circumstances that Ball must overcome if he is to one day participate in NCAA athletics: (1) signing with an agent; (2) playing for a professional team; and (3) featured in advertisements related to athletics apparel.
Article 12 of the NCAA Division I bylaws will govern, and the critical inquiry is what, if anything, Ball was paid. NCAA bylaws prevent receipt of compensation if an individual uses his or her athletic skill for pay in any form in that sport, or a future promise to pay, even if received after participation.
Ball’s role with BBB may be the easiest to overcome. The bylaws allow eligibility to be maintained if pay was received for modeling or other promotional activities outside the scope of athletics. BBB is an athletic brand, but because it is a family company, and because the Ball family is famous in its own right, it could be argued that Ball’s promotion of the brand was not connected to his athletic ability.
Even if Ball did receive compensation from BBB, the NCAA could simply require return of the funds and issue a suspension instead of an outright ban.
As to Ball’s time in Lithuania, Article 12 states that a student-athlete is ineligible for intercollegiate athletes if they have ever competed on a professional team in their sport.
Again, the compensation Ball received will be scrutinized closely. If Ball can prove that he was not paid a salary, and only received “actual and necessary expenses” while playing professionally, his eligibility could remain intact.
Actual and necessary expenses include items such as meals, lodging, apparel, coaching, health insurance and medical treatment and transportation. Article 12 also states that expenses “may be provided only if such expenses are for competition on a team or in a specific event or for practice that is directly related to such competition.”
There is mixed precedent, and the factual inquiry will be critical, but participation alone does not render a student-athlete ineligible. Current Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis played with Unicaja Malaga, a professional team in Spain. Sabonis went on to play collegiately at Gonzaga after the NCAA determined he did not receive impermissible benefits in Spain.
On the other hand, Enes Kanter, currently with the New York Knicks, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA after participating with Fenerbahce, a professional team in Turkey. The NCAA barred Kanter from playing at Kentucky after determining he received more than actual and necessary expenses during his time at the club.
An accounting of what Ball actually received, and what his contract stipulates may determine whether his fate is more like Sabonis, or more like Kanter.
Finally, Ball’s signing with an agent must also be addressed. Ball’s strongest argument in this regard may be recent changes to NCAA rules. While NCAA bylaws clearly prohibit “agreeing to be represented by an agent,” there are now some exceptions to this rule, particularly in basketball.
The recent Commission on College Basketball Charter, led by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice created a set of recommendations to address amateur athlete issues, one of which was recently adopted.
Now, “high school basketball players can be represented by an agent beginning July 1 before their senior year in high school, provided they have been identified as an elite senior prospect by USA Basketball.” USA Basketball intends to allow the NCAA to determine a player’s potential “elite” status.
This rule has not yet been implemented, and Ball’s hiring of an agent does not seem to comport with the letter of the law. However, the NCAA could make an exception for Ball, and may be reluctant to enforce a rule regarding agents if it is simultaneously enacting new rules that relax these standards. Ball’s status as a potentially elite prospect would help his cause in this regard.
For now, though, Ball is focused on his high school career. He has enrolled at the SPIRE Institute in Ohio. Ball’s participation in high school athletics under the Ohio High School Athletic Association rules will be subject to its own scrutiny, and some of SPIRE’s opponents have recently backed out of games against the school over concerns of Ball’s amateur status.
However, whether or not Ball actually participates in high school athletics does not necessarily bear upon whether he is eligible at the NCAA level.
Notably, Ohio amateur athletics Bylaw 4, which provides that amateur status is destroyed if the student-athlete “signs a contract or makes a commitment of any kind to play professional athletics, regardless of its legal enforceability or any payment received” would seem to be a more stringent standard, subject to fewer exceptions than NCAA Article 12 governing the same issue.
At first glance, the thought of Ball participating in NCAA athletics seems laughable given his history, but depending on the specific facts of his case, it is within the realm of possibility that he could be playing for a major college program during the 2019-2020 season.