As recent 2nd overall NBA draft pick Lonzo Ball was getting ready to head off to UCLA for his freshman year of college, he and two his younger brothers, both UCLA commits, began to make waves as a family of basketball prodigies. Their father, LaVar, who prides himself as the architect of their success, has since become a prominent figure in the sports world due to his bombastic comments about his sons, his desire to feud with NBA greats, and his own self-aggrandizing. It seems that everyone who watches basketball has an opinion on LaVar Ball. Love him or hate him, no one can deny the attention he’s gotten and the name he has made for himself. But as the debate rages on about his personality and ability to effectively parent, there seems to be very little discussion about how LaVar Ball influences or affects anyone other than his three sons.
In a recent AAU tournament in which he was coaching his son LaMelo’s team, LaVar demanded a refereeing change after a female referee awarded him a technical foul. The tournament officials obliged. After the game, LaVar went on a rant about the ref, saying that she had a vendetta because she was a woman, that she wasn’t in shape, and that she was trying to prove herself as the only woman there. He finished by saying that she needed to “stay in her lane,” the same phrasing he used to address reporter Kristine Leahy on the Herd with Colin Cowherd when she asked him how many pairs of ZO2 sneakers he had sold. LaVar refused to look at Leahy when she addressed him and when she asked if Big Baller Brand, his clothing company, would market to women, he insinuated that Big Baller Brand was not a women’s company, as it was for “Big Ballers” only (Elena Delle Donne and Kelsey Plum take note).
In both of these instances, Ball disrespected women and prevented them from doing their jobs. He could not fathom that a technical foul against him was the product of his own actions, but rather he blamed it on the fact that the referee felt she had to “prove herself.” In other words, he could not imagine that she was just doing her job, to say nothing of the comments he made about her being out of shape.
In the confrontation with Leahy, Ball refused to look at her, said he did not see her, and said that Cowherd only agreed with her because she and Cowherd were friends. Ball has disagreed with many sports analysts and reporters, but Leahy was the first to whom he turned his back. He argued with Stephen A. Smith but showed him respect. With Leahy, he was nothing but disrespectful to her, and he attempted to delegitimize her by refusing to answer her questions.
Ball never said “women cannot be referees”, or “stay in your lane because you’re a woman”. In fact, he claimed that he “doesn’t care whether [a referee] is a man or a woman,” and that “[Leahy] is a great reporter, just not reporting on [him],” but these statements don’t make up for the actions that preceded them.
The world of professional sports has long been a boys club. And while women have been making huge gains in the sports reporting industry, very few women have been brought on to do play-by-play or report from the press box. In the same vein, refereeing is dominated by men, and only three women have ever ascended to become NBA refs.
Ball’s comments are not isolated. They exist in a world that can already be exclusionary towards women. They exist in a world where female reporters are harassed online or thought to only be valuable for their looks. They exist in a world which may never see an equal number of female and male referees. And they exist in a world in which people are watching.
Ball is a prominent figure, and if you watch ESPN long enough, there is a good chance an analyst will bring him up. They may discuss whether or not he’s good at basketball or has any right to challenge greats like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. They may have an unfavorable view of Ball. However, no one seems to have disqualified him on account of his misogyny. Despite Ball’s sexist comments, and the coverage of them, no one has questioned whether his opinion is helpful or valid. The sports world finds it more unfathomable that Lavar thinks he can beat Charles Barkley one-on-one than that he thinks a female referee cannot simply do her job. Shaquille O’Neal just dropped a LaVar Ball diss track that continues as part of an elongated feud between Ball and the NBA legends who criticize him. Nowhere in the song does Shaq mention Ball’s treatment of women.
The story of LaVar Ball is one of a man with extremely talented sons who has made waves in the media for his bombastic comments and his overpriced brand. Sexism is not the story, it is just a small subplot. That is where the problem lies. If Ball is not called out for his comments, if they do not become part of the narrative about him, then they and others like them will continue. The stars on networks like ESPN and Fox Sports have the power to address Ball’s sexism. They have the power to make it the story and to assign that narrative to him. If the world of sports is going to move closer to equality and become a more inclusive community, then people like Ball need to be called out for their actions. The sports world needs to take action.
Representation matters and no one has bothered to stop and wonder how LaVar’s comments about women have affected people watching. Young girls see women being treated this way and believe that there is no future for them in sports reporting or refereeing. Boys see Ball and look up to him, thinking he is strong or funny for treating women with disrespect.
His sexism is bad for sports, and he should be called out for it the same way he has been called out for saying that he could beat Charles Barkley one-on-one.