- LaMelo Ball has an uphill battle becoming NCAA eligible and playing college basketball next season. Does his enrollment at SPIRE Academy improve his odds?
The return of LaMelo Ball to high school basketball invites questions as to how Ball, who has already played on two professional teams, could become an amateur once again and whether the youngest of Big Baller Brand (BBB) CEO LaVar Ball’s three sons could play NCAA college basketball once he completes high school. These questions have been sparked by Ball’s newly declared intention to soon enroll at SPIRE Institute, a private high school in Geneva, Ohio.
Ball’s unusual basketball journey
Ball, 17, has lived a basketball life from early childhood. His eldest brother, Lonzo, is a second-year player on the Los Angeles Lakers while the middle brother, LiAngelo, plays for the Los Angeles Ballers of the Junior Basketball Association (JBA). BBB sponsors the JBA, which features LaVar Ball as its commissioner and director.
As recently as last year, Ball’s basketball journey seemed fairly conventional. Between 2015 and 2017, Ball was a student at Chino Hills High School (Calif.) and a highly regarded basketball prospect. Ranked by ESPN as the seventh-best high school recruit for his class, Ball was set to follow in his brothers’ footsteps by committing to join UCLA in fall 2019.
For several reasons, Ball’s plans changed radically in the fall of 2017. First, as explained below, Ball became associated with a BBB sneaker deal that cast doubt on whether he remained NCAA eligible. Second, LaVar Ball expressed displeasure with coaching changes at Chino Hills. After Steve Baik and Stephan Gilling served as head coaches, the school hired Dennis Latimore, of whom LaVar Ball opined “I don’t like him one bit.” In December 2017, LaMelo Ball made the decision (no doubt with heavy influence from his dad) to leave high school and turn pro. Ball hired an agent, Harrison Gaines, who negotiated an employment contract for Ball. The point guard signed with Vytautas Prienai–Birštonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL) and Baltic Basketball League (BBL). Ball played eight games for Vytautas before returning to the U.S. to sign another contract with the Ballers of the JBA. Between the regular season and the playoffs, Ball played 11 games for the Ballers, averaging 40 points per game.
The (sort of) return of Ball to high school amateurism
Ball’s professional basketball career will take a hiatus over the next year. He has joined SPIRE Institute and is expected to play there as soon as next week. SPIRE Institute is connected to SPIRE Academy, which, according to its website, “provides a traditional classroom feel with a student to teacher ratio of 12:1” and offers a wide range of residential and online courses “to accommodate each student-athlete’s individual needs.” Tuition for the high school students is quite steep: $52,000 to $58,000, which includes room and board, and is roughly the same price paid by boarding students at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Ball has tweeted that he intends to complete his high school diploma by taking courses at SPIRE.
SPIRE is not listed as a member of Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA), the governing body of athletic programs in Ohio. This is significant because OHSAA conditions the eligibility of student-athletes on those student-athletes satisfying certain conditions.
It does not appear that Ball would be able to satisfy all of those OHSAA conditions.
This is apparent by reviewing OHSAA Bylaw 4, which stresses that eligible athletes must be amateurs and not professionals. Under Bylaw 4, amateur status is lost if the student-athlete competes for money or other remuneration. Along those lines, any reimbursement for travel, meals or lodging cannot be “conditioned on the individual’s or team’s place finish or performance or given on an incentive basis and such expenses are provided to all participants in the competition.” Bylaw 4 also dictates that a high school athlete loses his or her amateur status if they “capitalize” on their “fame by receiving money, merchandise or services of value.” Meanwhile, Bylaw 4 makes clear that “pay” is broadly defined to include “any direct or indirect remuneration, gratuity or other economic benefit in either the present or future, or any division or split of surplus (bonuses, games’ receipts, etc.).” Ball’s sneaker deal and pro contracts would thus be major eligibility hurdles.
Another provision of Bylaw 4 would be especially problematic for Ball. Under Bylaw 4, amateur status is squandered 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.” In comments to ESPN, Justin Brantley, SPIRE's associate academy director, expressed his understanding that, despite signing two employment contracts to play professional basketball, Ball was somehow not paid pursuant to those contracts. Even if such an account is accurate, Ball would still seem to have come up short for purposes of Bylaw 4. It contemplates that a signed professional services contract, irrespective of any accompanying payment, is an eligibility-forfeiting event. Ball would need to convince the OHSAA that Bylaw 4 is intended to govern actions by student-athletes while they’re playing in high school and not at times before (or, in Ball’s case, the time between his two high school basketball stints).
Yet since SPIRE is not governed by OHSAA, Bylaw 4 is not at issue. SPIRE can determine its own eligibility rules, provided they are compatible with rules that govern competing schools. SPIRE’s basketball team does not appear to compete in any OHSAA-governed conference. Likewise, the team’s 2018-19 schedule features games and tournament participation in various parts of the country. For instance, over Thanksgiving, it’ll play in the Skills Factory Tournament in Atlanta. Fast forward to a week before Christmas and SPIRE will travel to Las Vegas to play in the Tarkanian Classic. SPIRE’s schedule is not uncommon for a private school that openly stresses a mission of preparing elite athletes for athletic excellence. IMG Academy in Florida likewise features a number of out-of-state basketball games and is designed to maximize students’ chances to become Division I college stars and possible pro athletes and Olympians.
It’s not surprising that SPIRE would enroll Ball. While Ball’s dad is obviously controversial, Ball appears to be a legitimate pro prospect who will bring immediate star power to the program. His signing also provides a constant infusion of media attention for the school. This attention could lead to more applications from prospective students and interest from elite athletes.
But there is risk for SPIRE in attaching itself to Ball and his family. Already one of SPIRE’s scheduled opponents, La Lumiere High School (La Porte, Indiana), has cancelled its Nov. 13 game against SPIRE. The school has announced its decision on account of SPIRE using a pro player, i.e., Ball. If other schools react similarly, SPIRE might need to revisit its decision to play Ball.
Ball’s unlikely quest for NCAA eligibility
Ball has said that would like to play as a freshman at a “top” college in 2019-20 and has mentioned North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State as possible options. By all accounts, Ball only plans on spending one year in college before declaring himself eligible for the 2020 NBA draft.
The problem with Ball’s college plan is that Ball appears to have already forfeited his NCAA eligibility. The NCAA could view any of at least three events as eligibility-forfeiting.
First, and as previously detailed on The Crossover, Ball in 2017 designed a BBB sneaker named after him. Described by BBB as “the first signature shoe launched by a high school basketball player,” MELLO BALL 1 or MB1 retails on BBB’s website for $395. If Ball has at any time been paid or otherwise compensated for his involvement in MB1, he would encounter difficulty complying with Article 12 of the NCAA Division I Manual. Article 12 instructs that “an individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual (a) uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport; [or] (b) accepts a promise of pay even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollegiate athletics participation.”
On the other hand, Article 12 contains an exception for when pay prior to college is for “modeling” and other “non-athletically related promotional activities.” To that point, Ball is something of a celebrity, particularly with his family’s involvement in a Facebook reality series. However, the modeling exception only applies when the athlete’s participation is “independent of athletics ability” and the athlete “does not endorse the commercial product.” Given that the MB1 is a basketball sneaker and given that its trade name carries the implicit endorsement of Ball, the modeling exception would probably not work for Ball.
The second eligibility-forfeiting event is that Ball hired a basketball agent in 2017. This move seemingly ran afoul of Article 12, which instructs that an athlete “who retains an agent shall lose amateur status.” In response, Ball might stress that in August 2018 the NCAA announced a series of changes regarding the use of agents for basketball players. The one change relevant to high school basketball players is that, provided the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) consent to the following arrangement, players who have been identified as “elite senior prospects” by USA basketball can be represented by an agent. The agent can be retained beginning on July 1 prior to the start of their senior year in high school. Unfortunately for Ball, the NBA and NBPA have not yet acted on this arrangement—the “one-and-done” age rule will probably remain in place until 2022 or 2023—and even if they had, Ball wouldn’t have complied with the language of the rule: he hired an agent before July 1 of his senior year in high school.
As to the third eligibility-forfeiting event, it contains two parts: Ball signed separate employment contracts with two professional basketball teams. Even if Ball wasn’t paid by those teams (which is logically difficult to accept given that employment contracts contemplate an exchange of labor in return for something of value), the teams themselves were professional teams. For that reason, Article 12 once again presents an eligibility problem for Ball. Article 12 expresses that a student-athlete is ineligible for intercollegiate athletes in a sport if he or she “ever competed on a professional team in that sport.”
Ball would only be able to overcome this language if he could successfully invoke an exception to Article 12. One exception is if Ball could prove he was not paid a salary and did “not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate” on each his two professional teams. The NCAA defines “actual and necessary expenses” to include the following:
(c) Apparel, equipment and supplies;
(d) Coaching and instruction;
(e) Health/medical insurance;
(f ) Transportation (expenses to and from practice and competition, cost of transportation from home to training/ practice site at the beginning of the season/preparation for an event and from training/practice/event site to home at the end of season/event);
(g) Medical treatment and physical therapy;
(h) Facility usage;
(i) Entry fees; and
(j) Other reasonable expenses.
The NCAA further explains that actual and necessary 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 . . . the value of such expenses must be commensurate with the
fair market value of similar goods and services in the locality in which the expenses are provided and must not be excessive in nature.”
The NCAA would obviously be skeptical about Ball’s apparent claim that his employment contracts did not contemplate salaries or that he curiously declined to accept agreed-upon pay. The NCAA would surely demand to review the two employment contracts he signed and speak with Ball’s agent about them. The NCAA would also require much more detail from LaVar Ball, whose ownership of BBB complicates his son’s employment in the BBB-owned JBA. To that end, the NCAA would demand to know how and when LaVar transferred funds and other items to LaMelo, and whether LaVar has made promises to later pay LaMelo. Any such promises for future payments could be construed as deferred payments by an employer. Likewise, the NCAA would probably insist on affidavits from Vytautas officials as to the exact nature of Ball’s employment with the team. Keep in mind, the onus would be on LaMelo Ball and whichever college he attempts to attend to convince the NCAA to deem him eligible.
Ball might also consider the “professional player as team member” exception to Article 12. This exception dictates that Ball could play with pro players so long as those pros were not paid by the team or league. To illustrate, if Ball had played in recreational or pickup summer basketball leagues with teams that featured both pros and amateurs, he would have a chance. But Ball’s LKL and JBA teams were not recreational or summer ball entries: those teams employed professionals who were presumably paid to play on those teams.
The more likely path for Ball following his senior year of high school is to return to pro hoops for a year. Perhaps he’ll rejoin brother LiAngelo in the JBA. Or maybe he’ll take advantage of the G League’s new “select contracts” that are worth $125,000 for five months of work. But pursuing NCAA basketball seems like an onerous path—even for someone like Ball, who has spent the last year growing accustomed to life on “the road less travelled.”
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.