Gratitude is at the center of President Trump's feud with LaVar Ball, the father of one of three UCLA basketball players returned to the United States last week after being arrested in China for allegedly shoplifting.
Speaking to ESPN on Friday, Ball downplayed Trump's role in securing the players' release. Trump responded Sunday by tweeting that Ball is “very ungrateful.”
The president ostensibly meant that Ball is ungrateful in this specific case, but he also appeared to be tapping into a broader sentiment, shared by many sports fans, that Ball is ungrateful, in general — that he should just shut up and be thankful for the fruits of his family's blossoming athletic success.
Ball might not be a household name, but he was well known to people who follow basketball long before his middle son, LiAngelo, was held in China. His oldest son, Lonzo, led UCLA to the Sweet 16 in March and was drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in June. A third son, LaMelo, 16, has committed to play at UCLA in 2019.
Rather than watch his sons turn pro and sign lucrative shoe deals that also enrich large corporations, LaVar Ball formed the family's own sneaker and apparel company, Big Baller Brand. Before Lonzo Ball had even been drafted, Big Baller Brand released his first signature shoe, the ZO2, and set the starting price at $495 — far higher than the cost of kicks endorsed by established NBA stars such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
“People are losing sight — they’re looking at the price tag and not understanding that Lonzo’s shoe is symbolic,” LaVar Ball told Fox Sports in May. “That comes with a price tag. Symbolic as he’s the first one ever to come in here without even playing a game and have his own brand. It’s not just a shoe you just go in a store or something like that and you say, ‘You know what, let me get the Kyrie [Irving], the LeBron. By the way, throw in the ZO2.’
“ZO2s mean something. That’s why the price tag is like that. That’s what the shoe’s worth. I bet you not one of those guys that I named sat in the room for the price of the shoe. ‘We just give you the shoe, and here you go.’ ”
“If I sell 50 shoes, who cares?” Ball added. “It’s a family thing. It’s for the family.”
Ball frames his family's business as an effort to break down a system in which athletes — particularly African American athletes — receive only a slice of the proceeds from their talents. The Lonzo pie might be smaller than it would be if his shoes were made by Nike and sold for $95, but the point is that Lonzo can keep the whole pie.
Scientific public polling on LaVar Ball's approach to career management is nonexistent. But ESPN surveyed NBA players last month and asked whether Ball is a “master strategist,” a “buffoon” or both; 79 percent said “master strategist.” Asked whether Big Baller Brand is “legit” or a “joke,” 82 percent said “legit.”
Contrast those results with an ESPN fan survey conducted in May that asked whether Ball is “having fun and supporting his kids” or “should just let them play”; 75 percent said he “should just let them play.”
The evidence suggests that opinions of LaVar Ball tend to break along racial lines. Trump's mostly-white supporters might not, generally speaking, view $495 sneakers as “symbolic” but as a sign that Ball is “very ungrateful.” Can't he just be thankful that his oldest son gets to play a game for a living? Can't he just be grateful that a major shoemaker would pay Lonzo millions of dollars to wear a certain brand of sneakers?
Trump's own shut-up-and-play attitude has been on display in his criticisms of NFL players who protest racial inequality during the national anthem.
Trump's opinion of professional athletes appears to be that they don't really earn what they make but are given a “privilege” and should be grateful for it. LaVar Ball's view seems to be the opposite — that players are often exploited to line the pockets of others and ought to demand more control.
On the surface, the disagreement between Trump and Ball is about gratitude for the release of LiAngelo and three UCLA teammates from China. On a deeper level, the feud represents a split over what is earned and what is given when the beneficiary is a black athlete.