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With the exception of perhaps LeBron James, there’s never been a 16-year-old athlete with a large enough platform to realistically sell a sneaker like LaMelo Ball. And as a result, there’s been no pre-collegiate basketball player in a position to challenge the NCAA like the youngest Ball brother.
Sonny Vaccaro, the marketing legend known for his time at Nike, where he signed Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal, says LaMelo is the perfect person to challenge the NCAA’s amateurism guidelines with the release of his new sneakers. Should the NCAA rule LaMelo ineligible because of his financial relationship with Big Baller Brand and his signature sneaker, the Melo Ball 1, the Ball family could sue the NCAA, and turn college sports on its head.
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“This has the potential to change the landscape of amateurism, but I hope it’s resolved before the Ball kid gets to the NCAA,” Vaccaro tells Bleacher Report. “This is an obscene rule where they discriminately have control over individuals that they shouldn’t have control over in earning a living. This would create more turmoil in the right to earn, and is the ideal setup for what I believe athletes should have—the freedom to earn money off their God-given ability.”
As the eldest brother, Lonzo, makes his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers after leaving UCLA, continuing down the path planned by patriarch LaVar, the youngest may be forced to make a detour from the Bruins. The Melo Ball 1, LaMelo’s $395 signature sneaker from Big Baller Brand, prompted many questions, the foremost being whether the youngest Ball brother will be able to compete for UCLA under the guidelines of the NCAA, which strictly prohibit athletes from profiting off their likeness.
Multiple sports law experts tell Bleacher Report the NCAA would likely deem LaMelo ineligible to compete at UCLA because of his association with Big Baller Brand, citing Donald De La Haye as precedent after the former University of Central Florida kicker was ruled ineligible due to the monetization of his YouTube channel.
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“The NCAA bylaws talk specifically about the role LaMelo’s currently in, utilizing his likeness for financial gain,” says Courtney Brunious, associate director of the USC Sports Business Institute. “That financial gain is attributed directly with his skills as a basketball player. Without a change in the NCAA’s approach with the amateurism rules and the use of the likeness, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to play.”
LaVar has made it clear that he doesn’t care what the NCAA rules say about LaMelo’s potential eligibility.
“He’s going to have a shoe,” LaVar told Baxter Holmes of ESPN. “NCAA ain’t going to tell me sh-t. 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.”
The decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA, a 2014 lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, determined that barring payments to collegiate athletes violated antitrust laws, thus cracking the door for a larger lawsuit that could allow college athletes to receive endorsement deals. And should the NCAA deem LaMelo ineligible to play for UCLA, the Balls could be the ones to file that groundbreaking suit, according to Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College.
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Because LaMelo gained his fame prior to his time as a collegiate athlete, the NCAA declaring him ineligible would restrict his ability to sell his sneaker and represent a concerted effort to restrain trade, according to Edelman. As a result, this would be an illegal shift of endorsement revenues away from college athletes towards coaches and athletic directors, thus violating the Sherman Act, passed in 1890 to prevent monopolies and unlawful restraints on the free market.
“The theory of the lawsuit would be that this restraint of trade is not based on enhancing the product of college sports, but rather to make the college coaches the exclusive parties with which sneaker companies can reach agreement deals,” Edelman says. “It concertedly prevents college athletes from engaging in the free market.
“I think it’s a winner.”
Before the NBA draft and leading up to the launch of the ZO2’s, Lonzo’s sneaker, Big Baller Brand reached out to Vaccaro to consult on potential legal ramifications of starting a sneaker company. LiAngelo, the middle son who’s starting his freshman season for the Bruins, is notably absent from BBB marketing and the company’s new emoji app, which depicts animations of Lonzo, LaMelo and LaVar.
That LaMelo is hypothetically profiting off his likeness and, thus, could file a lawsuit against the NCAA is no accident, according to Vaccaro.
“They asked me about the possibility of [Big Baller Brand] working. I thought it could. We talked about the logics and legality of it happening,” Vaccaro says. “What LaMelo could do here is an extraordinary thing. It’s more extraordinary than Lonzo having his own shoe for $500. He’s not going to be playing in high school and there’s gonna be a lot of questions asked. But they said we couldn’t beat antitrust with O’Bannon, and then we beat it. They always say you can’t do it until you do it.”
Brunious says that a potential lawsuit could additionally benefit their business, given the guerilla nature of Big Baller Brand’s marketing strategy.
“They’re taking the approach that any publicity or press is good press,” Brunious says. “The brand is getting a ton of exposure for stories good and bad. A major case like this where that brand is associated with going after an organization like the NCAA could be beneficial from a business standpoint. That’s continued publicity there. Regardless of how it impacts LaMelo’s career as a collegiate athlete, it could be beneficial from a business standpoint and what they’re trying to do with the product.”
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Vaccaro says that LaMelo’s potential situation represents the perfect opportunity to fight the NCAA, unlike sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler’s suit, which argued the NCAA unlawfully capped player compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship. And especially in the wake of the Louisville sneaker scandal that cost Rick Pitino his job, public opinion continues to sway in favor of student-athletes.
“I don’t know how the NCAA could declare him a professional when they have professionals in other sports going back to college,” Vaccaro says. “This is a no-brainer. This kid can’t lose. The Ball family could put this to the test and create a landmark decision in America. I think they will win, and I don’t know how you could stop them.”
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Of course, given the cost and time required for a lawsuit, the Ball family could deem it a fight not worth fighting. LaMelo could take his talents overseas, or the NBA could get rid of the one-and-done rule before the youngest brother reaches college. And if the Balls hypothetically filed a lawsuit, LaMelo could already have declared for the draft by the time matters are resolved in court.
But the option to leverage the courts appears to be a reality. That the Balls even find themselves face-to-face with a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit is all thanks to LaVar.
“The public is mad at the dad, and that’s OK because the dad has accepted that,” Vaccaro says. “He has done a heck of a thing. I think this is all planned, and he’s doing a heck of a job fighting for his family.”
And before you know it, LaVar could soon find himself fighting for all college athletes.