Lavar Ball Is “Trumping” Sports Media

What the Trump-like exploits of America’s worst sports parent says about sports media and its American consumers
Stephen A. Smith and Lavar Ball (ESPN)

Stephen A. Smith and Lavar Ball (ESPN)

This publication normally does not delve into covering sports. However, Rantt News was founded in part to highlight the shortcomings of the mainstream media to adequately cover the 2016 election, and we wrote on this several times.

It is in this vein that we must highlight the same shortcomings befalling their colleagues covering the wide world of sports and their latest contrived media sensation: Lavar Ball.

For those who do not follow sports, Lavar Ball is the father of Lonzo Ball — a highly touted point guard out of UCLA who is set to become one of the premier rookies in the NBA next season — as well as LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball, his high school aged brothers who are already basketball phenoms in their own right.

While the Ball brothers have gained attention for their standout play, his father has fed off his sons’ popularity in order to shamelessly promote his own family brand by using outsized media attention generated by boorish and offensive statements and declarations.

Sound familiar? It should, as it is the same model used by our current president to dupe news outlets into gifting him $5 billion worth of free media coverage and, essentially, the White House. The fact that someone else is able to get away with the same thing means that the media, and its consumers, have not yet learned the error of their ways.

Lavar Ball: The Frankenstein’s Monster of Sports Media

Just as in President Trump’s early days, Lavar’s first appearances were met mostly with eye rolls. Like many sports parents, Ball acted as Lonzo’s premier hype man, going so far as to guarantee UCLA a championship before his son even played a game. He likened himself (positively) to the father of Michael Jackson, grooming his sons for stardom from their infancy.

As Lonzo’s acclaim grew on the court, and his brothers’ exploits became premier YouTube fodder, Lavar’s boasts grew on the sidelines, at one point claiming that Lavar is better than NBA champion and two-time Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry.

Sports media fell in love with the storyline; was he an overbearing father exploiting his sons’ talent for his own means, or a marketing genius who wants the best for his sons? Who cares, seemed to be sportscasters’ response; as long as it made for good television.

Soon, Lavar Ball was a highly sought after guest on primetime slots on ESPN, Fox Sports, and others. Much like conventional press with Trump, sports media saw a story like Lavar Ball as a boon for viewership numbers.

And a needed one. Like print media, networks such as ESPN have been seeing decreased revenue, due to lower cable subscriptions and growing free online content. Other sports news sites, such as Yahoo! Sports, are tied to mother companies with major financial woes. ESPN alone has lost more than 10 million subscribers, while at the same time facing ever rising broadcasting costs. Several weeks ago, ESPN decided to lay off more than 100 reporters from the company, mainly from its on-air and journalism staff.

News outlets such as CNN have often been derided for diluting or sensationalizing content in order to feed their 24/7 news cycle, a fact Trump was keen to exploit. This phenomenon is also observed with their sports colleagues, if not more so. Trivialities are quickly turned into major headline dramas. A case of deflated footballs is quickly morphed into the sports version of the OJ trials. If there is no story to cover, sports journalists then go out of their way to create one.

Sports media outlets, especially television channels, have increasingly sought to raise viewership in this way by increasing the “entertainment factor” of sports coverage. There has been a long observed trend away from poignant, statistics-based analysis made by more wonkish sportscasters like Keith Olbermann or Bob Costas in favor of featuring more former athletes and jock-like talking heads. Broadcasters such as Stephen A. Smith or Skip Bayless are thus now prominently featured more for their outlandishness than their journalistic acumen.

This has served to dilute the quality of sports shows, to the point where daytime ESPN now too often features such poignant analysis as this:

Or, worse, this:

Online content has been no less problematic. Fox Sports 1’s Jason Whitlock once wrote an op-ed featured on the FS1 site, the least misogynistic part of which may have been him claiming that Serena Williams was in shape because “she’s every bit as sexy as Beyoncé.”

Just as Trump was the godsend of the 24/7 news cycle, so too did Lavar Ball fit perfectly into the watered-down, personality-focused sports news mold, and did not disappoint it. The more he was given airtime, the bigger his claims grew, reaching “I know more about ISIS than the generals” proportions when he stated he could beat Michael Jordan in a one on one game (this, from a man who averaged a mere two points per game at a Division II school and who appears to have trouble simply moving on the court with his local rec league team.)

Cue the Offensiveness

Lavar also shares President Trump’s penchant for offensive rhetoric, casual racism, and misogyny. After UCLA lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 this year, he blamed his son’s failure to secure the promised championship to the presence of too many white players on the team. Media coverage of Lavar Ball’s comments about white players quickly parsed through the offensiveness of their camera darling rather than addressing it. Pundits were quite keen to skirt around labeling the comments of the “outspoken” Ball with the dreaded R word.

Nor was there any mention of how his comments essentially rehash the age-old “black athletes are more athletic than white athletes” stereotype created to marginalize and explain away the achievements of black athletes (including those of his own sons) as mere genetic superiority. Addressing such things would probably not be good for ratings.

Lavar didn’t stop there. Last week, Lavar responded to questions about his company by Kristine Leahy of FS1's the Herd Live by stating that his was not a “woman’s company,” belittling Leahy and, at one point, seemingly threatening her.

Sports media condemned Lavar’s blatantly sexist remarks about as strongly as Jerry Springer condemning cheating spouses from hitting each other. Why should they address them? This was ratings gold! Leahy’s own colleague, Colin Cowherd, hardly managed more than some meek admonishments while it was happening, just enough to keep Lavar going (why his show employs a format in which guests face with their back to Leahy remains unclear.) Not everyone was even convinced Lavar was being sexist:

Radio host Charlemagne tha God even made Lavar the victim of the exchange, claiming Leahy “weaponized her whiteness” by doing her job and daring to question Lavar.

Sports News or Lonzo Ball’s PR Firm?

Perhaps Lavar Ball’s most Trumpian quality, however, is his desire to use overblown media coverage to profit from his family name with a half-baked product line.

Instead of meat, vodka, or a university, Lavar has Big Baller Brand. He founded the company last year, after the Ball brothers’ success became viral. He reportedly tried to sell major shoe companies like Nike and Adidas on a partnership deal, asking for a Dr. Evilesque $3 billion and co- branding rights. The companies, though accustomed to shelling out eight figure endorsement deals to teenagers, naturally refused. So Lavar went the independent route, selling $50 t-shirts and $100 hoodies bearing his company’s logo.

But it was the release of his son Lonzo’s signature shoe that caused the biggest media maelstrom. At $495, the cost of the so-called ZO2 shoes more than doubled the price point of shoes endorsed by other basketball players. This for a player that, though highly rated, isn’t even considered the best upcoming rookie at his position. Lavar Ball himself explained his business decision thusly:

True to form, sports media resumed its de-facto day job as Lavar Ball’s marketing team. The shoes were the talk of every sports talk show, and Lavar was heralded as a genius, a visionary standing up to the big corporations.

Never mind the claims that he stole the designs, or that he doesn’t want his brand to be a “woman’s company” (moves seemingly straight out of the Trump business manual). Never mind insults at other players’ children or deceased parents. Indeed, Lavar seems to have reached "stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” level with sports pundits. He seemingly can do nothing that will prevent him from enjoying the free media spotlight.

It’s Bigger than Sports…

Some may argue that Lavar Ball and sports media is of little importance when compared to the larger geopolitical issues Trump’s presidency has created, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But in a country in which the Super Bowl is a national holiday, sports matter greatly as both a facet and a reflection, of American society. Spare a thought about what the saga of Lavar Ball says about American society.

In basketball, talk isn’t just cheap, it’s worthless if you can’t back it up on the court. The Jordans, Kobes, and Lebrons are not revered for what they said about their game, but for their pursuit of greatness and their ability to overcome their opponents (and sometimes gravity) through talent, determination, and hustle. In this way, they are the physical embodiment of the American dream, the belief that you can do anything and be anything if you are talented, determined, and work hard enough.

Lavar Ball represents none of these ideals. He possesses no talent outside of obnoxious, chauvinistic braggadocio. He has achieved little other than raising three talented sons that he is now hoping to exploit for fame and fortune. Trump is also not representative of the supposed ideals of the American dream. He was born into success, made his fortune by ripping off many hard working Americans, and then became president by inciting hatred against many more of them.

Yet both are allowed to succeed; given the attention they so desperately crave; permitted to share the same space as rightful champions and heroes; gifted free publicity to promote themselves to the public; and, in the latter’s case, even bestowed the right to lead our country. This reveals a potentially troubling insight into what is deemed acceptable and valued in America.

That both of these people are afforded the right to lead and profit from the American public indicates that, increasingly, it is not the voices of those who have done the most that is respected, but the voices of those who can yell the loudest and the most offensively. Trump and Ball reflect a “bully” mentality that seems ingrained and seemingly more favored in American society by the day. While Americans would doubtless prefer to imagine the American Dream as epitomized by Michael Jordan — talent, hard work, determination to win — it is the boorish Lavar Ball that may actually be the more realistic metaphor for today’s ideal American.

Both cases also highlight the complicity of the media in the rise of the “bully” figure. After all, Lavar and Trump may be problematic, but so too is every single reporter that bends over backwards to shove a microphone in their face, knowing them to be what they are. In this way, news and sports media alike have become more the megaphones for demagogues, instead of the providers of information they are intended to be.

This publication aims to buck this trend by taking to task the Trumps and Lavars of the world. We hope our colleagues follow suit.

News // Basketball / Donald Trump / Media / Sports