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Locker Room Talk: LaVar Ball is just trying to get off the plantation

Ball’s point: He wants his family to benefit from sons’ labor, not colleges, teams, apparel companies

Any African-American who aspires to leave the figurative or literal plantation gets my vote.

Case in point: LaVar Ball, the famous father of Lonzo Ball, former point guard for UCLA. On Thursday night in Brooklyn, New York, Ball is expected to be the first, second or third player taken in the 2017 NBA draft.

The plantation metaphor is jarring, especially when used in the context of the United States, where the institution of slavery was and continues to be the great contradiction of the world’s greatest democracy. Aside from the physical atrocities, a central feature of the plantation was economic exploitation where one was never fairly compensated for one’s labor.

Ball has embarked on an unprecedented public relations and business initiative to ensure that his son’s labor is fairly rewarded.

Throughout his son’s first and only season at UCLA, Ball became a media dream, proclaiming, among other things:

  • his son’s greatness,
  • lofty ambitions of securing a billion-dollar apparel contract,
  • surpassing Michael Jordan one day as one of the greatest players in NBA history.

During last college basketball season, Ball said he was not exploiting his son: UCLA was exploiting his son.

Ball’s style is unconventional and novel, and what he says makes complete sense — except to those who believe their economic role in life is to make the rich richer.

Ball’s point is simple: He wants his family to benefit from his sons’ labor — not the colleges, not the shoe companies, not the agents. He acknowledges the reality of exploitation, from high school to AAU to big-time college basketball.

Ball simply insists on being equal partners in the process. As much as Ball’s style has caused a stir, the underlying message strikes at the exploitative core of the industry.

George Raveling, the former head coach and Nike executive, called LaVar Ball the worst thing in sports in the past 100 years. With all due respect to the legendary coach, a friend and mentor, Raveling is part of the establishment that instinctively senses when its control is being threatened.

Ball wants to cut out the sports industry middlemen who benefit from an athlete’s celebrity; this includes the NCAA, retail chain stores that grab a slice of apparel sales, shoe companies, and AAU teams whose funding comes from shoe companies.

Those companies passed on signing Lonzo Ball to a shoe contract. Why? Most likely because his father was perceived as being uppity. Indeed, LaVar Ball wanted a partner, not a pimp.

What is Ball saying that’s so crazy? Jay Z owns a music streaming service. Floyd Mayweather has his own production company.

It’s only crazy if you are part of a sports establishment that has its way, especially with black athletes.

Imagine if every top-flight athlete collectively decided that they wanted to make, produce and control products related to their skills.

Ball is doing the same thing LeBron James is doing and, before that, Michael Jordan when he wanted to have his own image.

Now Jordan owns his own team.

Ball is following James’ lead: not endorsements but equal partnerships.

He is playing by the rules of the HOOPS game. James chooses equity over endorsements. $495 is a lot for a shoe, but so is $175.

The companies might yet say yes, depending on how Lonzo performs on the other side of that stage.

Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Kylia Carter, whose son, Wendell, is one of the nation’s top high school recruits.

Kylia hoped and prayed her son would go to Harvard. She sat in on a class of Harvard MBA candidates and heard them debate whether Wendell would be better off, in the long run, going to Harvard or Duke.

Kylia knew the short- and long-term answer was Harvard (are you kidding?).

Yes, Duke is a great school, but that was not the Duke young Carter will be attending. He will attend the part of Duke designed to accommodate big-time ballers.

During his visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carter said Harvard was his choice. Ultimately, he could not resist the gravitational pull of the big-time basketball complex, and he chose Duke, which has had a string of one-and-done players.

In what I thought was an acutely insightful analysis, Kylia said had her son chosen Harvard, he would have been making an academic decision. Choosing Duke was primarily an athletic-financial, one-and-done decision. And that’s how she would approach the coming season.

My only issue with LaVar Ball is that he should have pushed his son to attend a historically black college or university. THAT would have been revolutionary. There is nothing revolutionary about enriching the wealthy.

But that’s an issue for another day.

The furor created by Ball says much about the business of sports, but even more about the unavoidable hypocrisy of a click-driven media that is addicted to the polarizing figure.

Polarizing figures make money.

Clicks and likes are the new realities of our world. Clicks and likes are the mountains on which the media industry builds its fortunes. LaVar Ball is a click-giver.

Listen to the message, not the volume of the message. Ball tells his children what I tell the kids in the sports and recreation program in Harlem USA.

Ask them who wants to be a pro athlete, everybody’s hand shoots up. Ask who wants to be the anchor of the most popular sports show on TV?

I used to give them the somber statistics. Of the millions who play sports at age 13, only a handful will receive a college scholarship.

But then I thought: Somebody has to be that one in a million. Why not you? Someone has to be the anchor. Why not you?

Someone had to be the first black president of the United States. Why not you?

LaVar Ball asks, “Why not us?”

This is a powerful and compelling perspective that deserves respect and consideration for all 13-year-olds and their parents — watching, wishing and waiting for their turn to shine.

Nothing beats control and power. Yes, the plantation metaphor is jarring, especially when used in the context of the United States. This, simply, is the Ball message to all of us: Get off the plantation. Own your own, control your own. Aspire to positions of power and influence.

I say, God bless him; God bless the child who owns his own shoe.

He’s got my vote.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.