On an idyllic September evening in 2007, the scene inside the hallowed walls of Harvard Law School could not have made for a more stark juxtaposition.
Here was Sonny Vaccaro – the former sneaker company czar, the self-described renegade who famously called the grassroots basketball world a “cesspool, and we start the process” – entering the august halls of the nation’s most prestigious university and pontificating on the ills of the college athletics model. Introduced as the “Godfather of Basketball,” Vaccaro delivered a spirited 90-minute speech, lambasting the NCAA and chastising schools for profiting off images of their former athletes. He implored every one of the 30 law students to raise hell on campus against the tyrannical efforts of the NCAA for tacitly implying recruit O.J Mayo was illiterate by questioning the legitimacy of his standardized test score.
“Awaken America,” Vaccaro told me over lunch that day of his goal for his speaking tour throughout the Ivy League and beyond. “I always prayed this would be my ending. It is payback for all the kids and parents who have been with me for decades. I’m fighting for kids I don’t even know, who have no idea I’m fighting for them.”
Long before there was a clarion call for seismic change in college sports, long before it was en vogue to call for flipping the collegiate model on its head, there was the bold voice of Vaccaro, one of the most consequential and polarizing college sports figures of the past half-century. He advocated for NIL long before NIL was even a thing, pushing for student-athletes to be allowed to monetize their brands. He called out the hypocrisy of the NCAA.
In the movie “Air,” which opens nationwide Wednesday, Matt Damon plays a mid-1980s Vaccaro, who along with Phil Knight courts Michael Jordan for a Nike endorsement deal. The landmark signing had enormous ramifications on marketing, the sneaker industry, culture and sports. It also marks a significant chapter in Vaccaro’s life.
But it’s not the most important aspect of his legacy. That would be advocating for massive reform, serving as an enduring needle in the side of the NCAA and helping to initiate litigation that subsequently set the wheels in motion to create a world of financial opportunity and more for student-athletes. And further changes are almost certainly on the horizon.
“Sonny has always been a voice and an advocate for the underrepresented,” Chris Rivers, the former assistant director at Vaccaro’s ABCD Camp, told On3. “His efforts as a vocal leader challenged the status quo by trying to level the playing field for athletes and their families. There are countless high school and college athletes today that owe Sonny a huge thank you.”
Vaccaro as a convenient punching bag
For decades, the establishment – be it the media, the NCAA or some holier-than-thou coaches – cast him as a convenient pinata. Now, with an assist from the courts and social media, his views have gone mainstream. And after a career that included decades at Nike, Adidas and Reebok – playing the leading role in creating the current grassroots basketball landscape – the sea change in college sports leaves Vaccaro, 83, with a deep level of satisfaction.
Trying to help enact change has been a “personal quest” for Vaccaro, acting on behalf of countless players who participated in his camps and events. It’s also been a personal pursuit, he said, because “I didn’t have anyone on my side. The only one who stood by me was Pam [his wife].”
Nearly 15 years ago, he began calling players – at least 15 in all – asking if they’d be willing to be the marquee plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA. All applauded his efforts but declined for assorted reasons. Then, serendipitously, Vaccaro called Ed O’Bannon, the 1995 NCAA tournament star for UCLA whose family maintained a deep-rooted relationship with Vaccaro. After seeing his image – that he was not paid for – in a video game authorized by the NCAA, O’Bannon signed on as the lead plaintiff in a suit that ultimately included 19 other athletes.
In 2014, a U.S. district judge decided the NCAA’s use of names, images and likenesses of college athletes without compensation violated antitrust law. Judge Claudia Wilken ruled schools could pay football and men’s basketball players up to $5,000 per year, with the money going into a trust and being available to athletes after they leave college. The following year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Wilken’s ruling on the payments of $5,000 but upheld the antitrust violation. Also in 2015, the NCAA addressed one aspect of Wilken’s ruling by passing legislation to allow schools to increase the value of an athletic scholarship to include cost of attendance.
Sonny Vaccaro was heavily involved in grassroots basketball. At the Adidas ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., in 1998, he held court with then-Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and then-Kansas coach Roy Williams. (Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Finally in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not hear the NCAA’s appeal of the O’Bannon case, leaving in place lower court rulings that found amateurism rules violated federal antitrust law but prohibited payments to student-athletes. While both sides claimed victory, this was clear: The effect left the NCAA vulnerable to more legal challenges.
“The O’Bannon case was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Vaccaro told On3 on Monday from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “On my tombstone, there will be a little indentation up there somewhere, that my best work was being involved in the O’Bannon case. … O’Bannon was the lead in the fight. I found the right guy. Eddie opened the doors. That lawsuit led to everything else that we have today. That was the Magna Carta.”
Until that point, there had been plenty of lawsuits filed over the previous decades against the NCAA pertaining to a host of issues, Vaccaro said, but what the O’Bannon case achieved was “to give life to all the ones that failed. Nobody closed the deal until O’Bannon. And that’s when they [NCAA] became vulnerable.”
Rivers echoed that sentiment, saying the case will be regarded as a “tipping point for some of the dramatic changes we are experiencing today.”
‘There is nothing good about the NCAA’
Then came the NCAA’s resounding defeat, by a unanimous 9-0 margin, two years ago in the U.S. Supreme Court in the Alston v. NCAA case. More litigation, including Johnson v. NCAA, continues to work its way through the courts. A new class-action suit was filed Tuesday by the same firms that won the Alston case. Multiple former athletes are plaintiffs against the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences, seeking “triple damages on behalf of current and former Division I college athletes for injuries suffered from rules found to be unlawful in the Alston litigation.”
All the while, the NCAA is making “Hail Mary” attempts to secure antitrust protection – and a federal NIL bill – from Congress as its beleaguered, self-defined amateur model remains on life support.
“Their amateur model has been dead,” Vaccaro said. “There has never been an amateur model as they presented. So it’s dead – it’s dead. And they can’t revive it. … They have been exposed. And the exposure comes by the continuous greed on a different level by the conferences. It is the Wild West. There is nothing good about the NCAA. Even the conferences are fighting and preying on each other. They are killing their own.
“They gave birth to an illegal operation making things [depicted] to the public as being legal, allowed. I think they are dead. I don’t think they will recuperate. They may surface in a different uniform. But they are dead. I don’t care how many times they go to Congress. The public is not going to let them. The next step is when football does what it’s going to do eventually – what the hell do you need them [NCAA] for? Just go schedule your own games and they’ll split more money.”
Vaccaro oversaw a basketball evolution
The story of how college basketball has evolved over the past half-century can’t be written without a sizable chapter on Vaccaro’s influence. He first signed prominent college coaches – including Jerry Tarkanian, John Thompson and Lute Olson – to lucrative sneaker deals in which they’d outfit their athletes in Nikes. As Thompson acknowledged in his autobiography, he was getting paid for his players’ labor.
Vaccaro helped secure Jordan’s game-changing Nike deal. He developed the July All-American high school camps as high-profile marketing showcases for players – and their sneakers. He launched the Hall of Fame career of an obscure teenager, Tracy McGrady, at his ABCD Camp. After taking a call from an old friend, Joe Bryant, Vaccaro placed Bryant’s under-the-radar son, Kobe, in his camp after the Bryants had moved back to the United States from Italy. And it was Vaccaro who watched grainy video of a kid from Akron, Ohio, and placed LeBron James in his camp before James was anointed The Chosen One.
In addition, Vaccaro in 2006 was on the frontlines proposing details for a potential national academy for elite basketball prospects – something near to his heart – to powerful stakeholders, including then-NBA commissioner David Stern, managing director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo and NBA officials. Then-Villanova coach Jay Wright told me then that “Sonny has always been at the forefront” of forward-thinking basketball concepts. Lo and behold, years later the industry saw the inception of basketball-focused alternatives to college with NBA G League Ignite and Overtime Elite. And Vaccaro in recent years has gotten calls from parents he’s never met seeking his advice on both avenues.
But the most significant, most meaningful aspect of his legacy is relentlessly and loudly advocating for changes when few others would. And now the ground continues to shift beneath college athletics, reshaping the enterprise into something far fairer for the revenue-producing student-athlete.
Once a fixture at the Final Four, Vaccaro hasn’t been to a college game since 2007. But this week he watched on TV as San Diego State’s Lamont Butler sank a game-winning buzzer-beater and LSU’s Angel Reese became the face of the Tigers’ national title team – and both secured NIL deals on the heels of their achievements.
It’s been a long time coming. Once a lone voice clamoring for reform, Vaccaro accomplished what he set out to do in those Ivy League lecture halls: “Awaken America.”
“The thing that hurts the most, and maybe there’ll be reparations for this, is the thousands of kids that the NCAA punished under a lie – that they owned them,” Vaccaro said. “That’s the sad thing. They lied to these kids for 70 years. The good thing is O’Bannon and Alston and all the other cases came to this, and they now have freedom and the right to live a good life, no matter how old you are, and they have the right to earn.”
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