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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Interviewing LaVar Ball (sometimes) is an ethical imperative

Have the Los Angeles Lakers players stopped responding to their head coach?

LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of the team’s rookie point guard, thinks so. Last weekend, he told an ESPN reporter that Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton “doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.” Nonsense, say other coaches around the NBA, who are defending the 37-year-old coach.

Going further than just defending a colleague, however, many have blasted ESPN for treating Ball’s statements as newsworthy.  As Dallas Mavericks Head Coach and National Basketball Coaches Association President Rick Carlisle said:

I view the recent ESPN article as a disgrace, quite honestly … Luke Walton is a terrific young coach who is bringing along a young team. And it’s a difficult task. If you don’t believe it, just ask me.

Carlisle has won more than 700 NBA games as a coach and has an NBA championship. He surely has forgotten more about basketball than most of us will ever know. He is an authority on the sport. The fight that Carlisle, his contemporaries and coaches-turned broadcasters like Jeff Van Gundy, who now calls games for ESPN and who called the report a “cheap shot,” want to set up is defining who else has the authority to comment on NBA matters.  And LaVar Ball, they are saying, should not be on that list. This is not their decision to make.

The debate over whether to interview LaVar Ball is a proxy fight over the independence of sports journalism.

If you do not know LaVar Ball, then you probably do not pay much attention to basketball. He rose to prominence through a combination of the force of his personality, his business dealings, the basketball talents of his sons and proximity to two of the world’s most glamorous basketball brands (UCLA and the Lakers). His willingness to say anything and criticize anyone (up to and including the President) has helped him build a media presence. He has used this platform to clash with the shoe companies and the NCAA. And he is not shy about his positions on his son’s teams.

Ball very likely seeks to convert this attention into profit for his nascent business empire. And drive for attention has created significant backlash, with important basketball names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley speaking out against him. Speaking on ESPN in October, Michael Wilbon called the attention ESPN gives to Ball “editorial malpractice.” To be sure, Wilbon is correct that it is not necessary to cover every outrageous statement Ball makes. But the attacks on ESPN (even those coming from inside the building) over this story are trying to rule LaVar Ball out of bounds as a source for reporters, something the Lakers have been trying to do for months. According to at least one report, coaches asked media relations staffs to pull the credentials of reporters who talked to Ball. Threats to curtail access in response to coverage choices is not exactly a new technique of media management.

In sports reporting, fights over sourcing are really debates over journalistic independence.

American professional sports leagues all have media access rules that seek to both invite and limit coverage. This system of media access ensures that basically anyone with a credential could work through official channels to write a story about a game. Game information like statistics is easily available and players are coaches are required to talk to the media at specific intervals. Event driven coverage constitutes the bulk of the sports page, and this sort of reporting treats the team’s on-court fortunes as inherently newsworthy. These rules define a source universe and it is possible to generally fill a daily report working with just those people. If you do not believe me, look at the work of in-house sports reporters, the people who write for team websites. Outsiders – agents, angry parents, law enforcement – tend not to be represented. Here is what turns up when you search “LaVar”:

In this system of media access, coaches are constructed as authoritative sources. On an NBA game day, a head coach may hold three separate media sessions. Postgame, coaches often speak before players enter the locker room to be interviewed, which means a coach’s comments and analysis tend to structure the questions players receive. In this way, they influence deadline reporting that comprises the vast majority of sports coverage. None of that takes into account the internal pressures on those in the locker room not to say the wrong thing.

Most sports journalists will tell you they do not care who wins. They will say things like they root for their story or against overtime. This dispassion may alienate audiences, many of whom cannot relate to reporters who claim to not care who wins when they root so ardently. But not caring about results is a boundary sports journalists build between themselves and fans. But we should not mistake dispassion for independence.

Within sports journalism, independence means reaching beyond the media apparatus the leagues have set up and developing sources of information beyond what the NBA has laid out for credentialed reporters. The journalistic judgement comes in knowing when a source is worth talking to and that source has nothing of value to add. In the case of the comments that set off this discussion, the newsworthiness is obvious. LaVar Ball is in a position to have some knowledge of the inner workings of the Lakers’ locker room and he put his name on his criticism. Now it is completely possible that Ball was wrong. Kyle Kuzma, another talented Lakers rookie, stood up for Walton on Monday. The Lakers are 3-0 since the ESPN report appeared – including a win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr has suggested the media’s fascination with LaVar Ball reflects a decline in journalistic and societal standards represented by the network’s recent layoffs. And certainly the coverage of Ball has gone too far at times. But in attempting to cut off LaVar Ball’s media coverage, NBA coaches are asking reporters to stick within a system that buttresses their own authority rather than seek outside voices that may undercut it.

It is absolutely fair to question whether LaVar Ball’s perspective is newsworthy on many topics. Every sports journalist should consider that before putting a microphone in Ball’s face. But sometimes the answer is yes.

Michael Mirer is assistant professor of journalism at Fairmont State University. He studies sports media and journalism ethics and worked for seven years as a sports reporter.