There are those who would argue that Sonny Vaccaro helped create the biggest problem in college sports when he began handing out money in the late ’70s to basketball coaches so players would wear Nike shoes.
Guys like Jerry Tarkanian and John Thompson got checks for $50,000 or so a year, good money in an era where coaches weren’t automatically millionaires. Their players didn’t join in the profits, getting little more than sneakers with swooshes on them to wear around campus.
“The only thing I say is I probably did that better than anybody in the world,” Vaccaro said. “I had good ideas but if the NCAA thought they were wrong all they had to say is no. I never put a gun to anyone’s head.”
The former shoe peddler who helped create the market where billions of dollars are in play isn’t about to apologize for his role. When you’re the guy who signed Michael Jordan to his first shoe contract, there’s not a lot to apologize about.
Only now Vaccaro is selling something other than shoes. He’s on a mission to force the NCAA to share some of the billions that big time college sports generate with the players who make it all possible.
Along the way he could once again help change the way college sports are operated. The irony is not lost on him.
“I was part of what blew up into this mammoth business, absolutely,” Vaccaro said. “There were no deals with coaches before me, we created this. But if I was so bad then, why are they (the NCAA) not double bad now?”
Vaccaro was in search of players who felt wronged when he teamed up with former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon in 2009 to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over the commercial use of O’Bannon’s image. The suit scheduled for trial June 9 in Oakland, Calif., could not only force the NCAA to change the way it does business, but conceivably put it out of business.
The 74-year-old who helped develop an entire new culture in youth sports wrapped around shoe company profits has been an irritant to the NCAA since the days Walter Byers was in charge. The NCAA didn’t say anything when he gave money to college coaches and ran camps and all-star games for high school players, but has fought hard at every turn when it comes to paying players.
That’s changing some as the trial approaches. With the NCAA’s control over college athletics is being attacked both in court and in the ballot box over a union for Northwestern football players, there are signs the five major conferences will come up with a plan sometime this summer that will give more benefits and rights to players.
Vaccaro believes he and O’Bannon have already won a victory by forcing the NCAA to make concessions that otherwise would have never been made.
“Whatever happens in June, whether it is settled or not, Ed O’Bannon has made a stronger case for college athletes than anyone has ever done,” Vaccaro said. “He’s as much of a pathfinder as Curt Flood was in baseball. What Ed did was go against the grain of everything. For 30 years these people had a free pass.”
For Vaccaro, who went on to work for Adidas and Reebok after leaving Nike, the tipping point came when ESPN paid $175 million for the Classic Sports Network in 1997. The network carried replays of big college games, but the players from those games never received a dime for the programming.
The NCAA’s argument that it owned the rights to player images didn’t sit well with Vaccaro or O’Bannon, who came on board when he saw a video game featuring his likeness from the 1995 UCLA national championship team.
“For a college to say get something was like sacrilege,” Vaccaro said. “They have never explained why they have the right to your image even after you die. What right do they have to the most basic thing you own? It’s the most illogical argument you’ll ever hear.”
Vaccaro said there have been two settlement conferences ordered by the federal judge in the case that produced no results. Two more are scheduled in upcoming weeks, but he’s not convinced the NCAA wants to negotiate seriously.
Vaccaro would like to see a plan emerge where athletes are paid a certain amount for each year of college service — but not until after they graduate. It’s a system that would not only reward players financially, but keep them in school longer so they can pursue degrees.
“I believe in my heart this can be worked out,” Vaccaro said. “There’s no way in the world you can convince me that honest and open minds can’t be in agreement. (Nike chairman) Phil Knight told me something long ago. He said: ‘Sonny you can never pay too much for something that’s worth everything.’ And he was right.”
Maybe so, though Jordan’s shoe deal started at a modest $500,000 in 1984. Of course, both Nike and Jordan have profited tremendously since.
Maybe the NCAA and its athletes can find a way to do the same.