Dropping the Ball(s)
By: Vicky Wilhelm
What do the NBA draft, a loudmouth father, and a shoe line all have in common? For those who follow sports, especially college basketball, the obvious answer is the Ball family. Ah yes, the ever-controversial and cockier-than-thou basketball family, consisting of father Lavar, mother Tina, and sons Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo, that has seemingly taken over the sports world. While this answer is indeed a connection between the three things posed in the opening question, it is not the only answer, nor is it the most concerning one. The other, and more alarming response to our opening query, ladies and gentleman, is 4 simple letters: ESPN.
Yesterday, sports giant ESPN announced that Lavar and Lonzo Ball will “grace the cover” of their May 29th edition of ESPN the Magazine. Considering some of the other star athletes and humanitarian issues that have been on the metaphorical front page of sports itself, “grace” hardly seems like an appropriate word here. However, the Ball family, or at least Lavar and Lonzo, have become the shiny gold darlings of ESPN. Much like actress Amy Adams can’t make a movie without receiving an Oscar nomination, Lavar and Lonzo can’t do, well, anything really, without it getting press coverage. More specifically, without ESPN devoting airtime, social media, and website space to it. What’s most concerning about this is not that Lonzo, former college basketball player at UCLA who is now preparing for the NBA draft, doesn’t deserve some coverage. He tops several draft boards across the country, and helped UCLA make it to the Sweet Sixteen in this year’s NCAA tournament. To illustrate his talent, and for your viewing pleasure of course, here’s a clip of Lonzo’s tournament highlights, complete with dramatic background music:
See! The kid actually can play, and kids who can play do earn and deserve time on sports networks. That being said, though, most of the ESPN coverage is not about Lonzo’s basketball abilities at all. It’s about his chatterbox of a father, or the overpriced Big Baller Brand, or even about Lonzo’s younger brother. In the last five days, ESPN has tweeted about either Lavar or Lonzo eight times, which in and of itself is an impressive statistic. However, exactly zero of those tweets were solely coverage of Lonzo’s draft status or basketball feats.
Now, I know that an argument can be made that it’s impossible to talk about Lonzo Ball without also mentioning his father, or any of the other various off-the-court reasons his family has been in the spotlight. That, though, is the problem. ESPN is a sports network, but when it comes to the Ball family, they’re behaving more like a tabloid. Yesterday, along with the magazine cover announcement, ESPN published a story that is supposedly about why Lavar and his family have “captured our attention.” What’s particularly enraging about this piece is that writer Ramona Shelburne puts every reader of the article in line with her, and seemingly her employers, views. The main reason for the Ball’s rise to fame and persistence in the spotlight is not their son’s athletic abilities, it is the media coverage the family constantly receives. They’re getting attention because ESPN is giving it to them.
The responses to the the article came in quick, and they came in hot. It seems, probably much to ESPN’s chagrin, that a lot of the general public does not actually believe the Ball’s are “earning” our attention; rather, that our attention is being stolen from us and forced onto the bizarre family through an absurd amount of media attention and spectacle. Here are some of my personal favorite responses to the article:
These are only three of the myriad of negative responses to the cover story announcement. Sure, sprinkled among them was the occasional positive or excited post, but they were drowned out by the majority of Twitterers who have a problem with ESPN’s obsession with the Ball family. The fact that ESPN seems to truly believe that their subscribers are just as keen on the Balls as they are, could indicate a larger problem within the network. Subscription numbers for ESPN have been plummeting, and some fear the worst for the reigning sports networking gods. ESPN is way off base with their constant Keeping Up With the Ball’s diatribe; essentially, they’ve ventured out of the actual sports coverage world and into a place filled with gossip, juvenile fights, and family drama. Perhaps getting back into the genuine sports market and out of what should probably be E! Network’s territory would help bring back some of their chord-cutters.
In short, ESPN is in a weird, obsessive relationship with the Ball’s, one that could prove toxic for the network. At the very least, it will incite world-record numbers of eye-rolls and guffaws from their viewers. Drop it, ESPN, or we might just drop you.