Last week, in a federal court, an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and its member universities took another step toward trial. If the NCAA loses -- an April date seems likely -- its punishment might dwarf the organization’s recent $60 million fine against Penn State; damages could reach billions of dollars. The NCAA also would be forced to pay athletes, if not while they’re playing, then with money held in trust until they have left school.
This all started with Sonny Vaccaro. Do you remember the name?
Sonny Vaccaro was "the godfather of summer basketball." Because he persuaded stars to wear certain basketball shoes, he was "the sneaker pimp." "One of the most powerful -- and controversial -- men in basketball for nearly three decades" -- that, too, was said of Sonny Vaccaro, who never played and never coached. He only made deals.
He sold sneakers. But to call Vaccaro a salesman is to minimize him. He could sell stoves at a shipwreck. Of his first big-time deal with a big-time school, he once said, "They finally made a deal with the devil, me being the devil."
In his high-pitched rasp of a voice, he’s good at sound bites, comic riffs and indignation. At his most indignant, it’s impossible to hear Vaccaro’s every word, because the words come so quickly that they overlap, and often fail to form a complete sentence before moving on to the next indignation. His NCAA rants are classics of the genre. Asked last week why he continues to this day to be the target of NCAA queries, he said, "I’m the usual suspect." Then came this, a mashup delivered in one breath:
Translated: They never liked me and for sure don’t like me now.
* * *
Enforcement investigators for the NCAA have sailed for a generation in an Ahab-like pursuit of the leviathan John Paul (Sonny) Vaccaro. He’s now 72 years old. The son of an Italian immigrant, raised near Pittsburgh, once a football and baseball player, a graduate of Youngstown State majoring in psychology, he first taught special-ed classes, promoted rock concerts and paid the rent gambling in Las Vegas. Then, in 1977, for $500 a month, he took a job with a new company in nowhere, Oregon. It was called Nike.
If Vaccaro didn’t invent sleaze in basketball, he perfected it. The young hustler created the universe of camps, all-star games and travel-team tournaments of which the repentant old man now says, "It’s a cesspool." He accepts his full portion of blame for the stink. For almost 30 years, Vaccaro and his employers (Nike, Adidas, Reebok) worked with coaches, agents, advisors and other parasites to enrich themselves on the backs of young basketball players. "I wrote checks to everybody," he said. But when he retired five years ago, Vaccaro re-cast himself as an advocate for players. He said he finally had a chance to say out loud what he had long known to be true. Approximately, this:
Translated: Players were getting screwed.
Vaccaro says his awakening came in 1996. He was at home watching ESPN Classic, a basketball game, North Carolina against Duke. "I thought, ‘these kids are no longer in school, and they’re still selling them, only now in movies.’" He said he left Reebok in 2007 to be free from an employer’s constraints on what he could say. He also wanted to preempt suggestions that he was only making noise to sell shoes.
Vaccaro says he wanted to do right by players who had done right by him. He was on a crusade. He attacked the NCAA as a multi-billon-dollar exercise in hypocrisy; it could pretend to "amateurism" only because it refused to pay players for their work. He spoke about "the injustice of it all" to law schools and business schools at Duke, Harvard, Yale and Penn. At the University of Maryland, according to a 2008 story by The New Republic reporter Jason Zengerle, Vaccaro called the NCAA "the most fraudulent organization that ever lived." He appeared on ABC’s "Nightline." He did an ESPN "Town Hall." In July 2010, he told Libby Sander of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "I had to spread the word. … It’s almost like being one of the gospel guys."
After a speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Vaccaro learned that someone had paid attention. Michael D. Hausfeld called. Hausfeld’s law firm has won massive awards in class-action suits involving the Holocaust, South African apartheid, and the Exxon oil spill. Vaccaro said of Hausfeld: "He asked me, ‘Why do you believe students’ rights have been violated?’ And I told him."
Vaccaro’s big-picture story to the lawyer: The NCAA, dictatorial in setting and enforcing rules, gets rich on labor it doesn’t pay for other than with a scholarship that promises an education which it too often fails to deliver. It is a small-picture detail, though, that is the foundation of Hausfeld’s lawsuit: All athletes are led to believe their eligibility depends on agreeing to a "Student-Athlete Statement." That statement authorizes universities to use athletes’ names, images, and likenesses for any purpose. Meanwhile, the athlete must not accept payment for anything or lose "amateur" status.
The Hausfeld-Vaccaro phone call led to the lawsuit originally filed in the name of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. It has grown into a class-action suit including Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and a dozen more former basketball players. The stakes are high for the NCAA. After a half-century and more of domination of its athletes, the organization faces a possible diminution of its authority as well as the loss of billions of dollars past, present and future.
Small wonder, then, that the NCAA is again hounding Sonny Vaccaro.
* * *
His fingerprints are everywhere in basketball. Here’s a scene that on its surface has nothing to do with Vaccaro, but if you run it back far enough is illustrative of his lasting influence. Doug Collins, the Philadelphia 76ers coach, was talking about the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. He remembered players draping the American flag over a logo on the USA uniform. It was testament to Michael Jordan’s loyalty to Nike (paid for by Vaccaro) that he wouldn’t be seen in Reebok stuff. "Like this Adidas," Collins said, touching the company’s logo on his golf shirt. "If I do a TV interview without this, I’m fined."
Vaccaro figures subliminally in the Collins story because he was the salesman who first brought the sneaker companies into America’s basketball consciousness. He started with a high school all-star game in Pittsburgh in 1965. Then came the entry-level job at Nike (where in 1985 he persuaded Phil Knight to "give MJ all the money" instead of dividing it among several college stars that year). For a generation, he created basketball’s endless summer.
All the summer basketball came from him, first the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, then the ABCD All-America Camp and the Reebok Big Time Tournament. From the ‘60s into the 21st century, he knew every young man in America who could play -- because the kid had brought his game for Vaccaro’s examination. At the center of this universe no one had ever imagined sat the godfather Sonny Vaccaro, smiling, writing checks to everyone.
His work produced both suspicion and respect. Enemies suggested he broke NCAA rules by whispering in a star’s ear that he should attend Enormous State U., where, by design, the coach was paid to put his players in the godfather’s sneakers. At the same time, Vaccaro’s friends and beneficiaries portrayed him as an entrepreneur up from nothing who, while making a buck, helped kids who’d never been helped before.
One such kid, 14 years old, was named Ed O’Bannon.
* * *
O’Bannon became the John Wooden Award winner as college basketball’s player of the year on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team. For years after, he saw himself in videos produced by UCLA and the NCAA. While both profited from video sales, NCAA rules denied O’Bannon a share. Vaccaro now says O’Bannon "heard what I’d been saying and asked, ‘What do I do?’ I gave him Michael Hausfeld’s number."
Hausfeld’s suit was filed July 21, 2009. A motion for class certification, filed last week in U.S. District Court in California, included the names of 16 former athletes: O’Bannon, Robertson, Russell, Ray Ellis, Harry Flournoy, Tate George, Alex Gilbert, Sam Jacobson, Thad Jaracz, David Lattin, Patrick Maynor, Tyrone Prothro, Damien Rhodes, Eric Riley, Bob Tallent and Danny Wimprine.
In the October 2011 issue of Atlantic magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote a withering indictment of the NCAA entitled "The Shame of College Sports." He cited two truths obvious to all who would see, truths so strong as to create a force against which lies cannot stand, even the Frank Merriwell myth-lies nearly a century old. Those truths are:
1. Belief in amateurism is the original sin. "There is no such thing," Branch wrote. "No legal definition of amateur exists, and any attempt to create one in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature -- a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship."
2. Big-time college sports are exploitative to the edge of slavery. "Slavery analogies should be used carefully," Branch, a biographer of Martin Luther King, wrote. "But there is no ignoring the elephant in the room. Corporations and universities make billions of dollars using the cheap labor of college athletes, many of them African-American." There is, Branch wrote, the "unmistakable whiff of the plantation."
The first words in Branch’s piece come from Sonny Vaccaro, spoken in 2001. "I’m not hiding," Vaccaro told members of the elite Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of would-be reformers including university presidents, an NCAA president and two former heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The commission had been formed, Branch wrote, with the idea of "saving college sports from runaway commercialism as embodied by the likes of Vaccaro." When a former university president asked Vaccaro why any school should be an advertising medium for his industry, Vaccaro said, "They shouldn’t sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it."
Vaccaro now remembers the Knight group’s reaction: "I scared the [expletive] out of ‘em." Then, laughing: "But nothing changed."
The whole truth is, things have changed -- for the worse. The money then available in college athletics was huge. Now it’s way more. The motion in the most recent O’Bannon suit filing includes a line reporting that 44 universities in five major conferences in 1985-86 paid their head football coaches an average of $273,300. In the 2009-10 season, those schools paid coaches an average of $2,054,700. That’s a 652 percent raise. Also, this note: In 1996, the Southeastern Conference signed a five-year television deal paying $85 million. In 2008, it signed a 15-year deal paying $3 billion. Per year, that’s up from $17 million to $200 million, an increase of 1,076 percent.
* * *
Anyone bold enough to scare the (expletive) out of the Knight Commission is not likely to hide from the NCAA, either. For years, Vaccaro criticized the organization’s rules on transfers and renewable-yearly-at-a-coach’s-whim scholarships. He also spoke out against the NBA’s age-limit rule denying entry into the league until age 19; the rule causes most high school players to spend at least a season in the NCAA. He added to that insult by encouraging high schoolers barred from the NBA to turn pro in Europe.
They never liked him and they sure don’t like him now. A year ago, Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president for communications, told The New York Times, "Time has shown that Mr. Vaccaro’s vision of intercollegiate athletics is fundamentally at odds with the NCAA’s, and reality for that matter." While Vaccaro says he’s an unpaid consultant on O’Bannon, the NCAA must think he’s more important than that. Its lawyers have accused him of paying two players to join the suit; both Eric Riley and Tate George deny it. The NCAA also requested copies of Vaccaro’s financial statements, speeches and contacts with media.
He said, "I’ve been cooperative. I’ve given them everything they’ve asked for. They think I have ulterior motives. I don’t. I’m just a private citizen with opinions."
Then, before falling silent for a nanosecond, Sonny Vaccaro offered one more opinion.
"If I was a bad guy then," he said, amused, "I’m a good guy now."