The Gospel According to Sonny

Sonny Vaccaro helped commercialize college sports. Now he wants athletes to get their due.

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Sonny Vaccaro is agitating for change in big-time sports: "At some point in time, you've got to go spread the word, and you've got to give something up."
July 25, 2010

If bookshelves reveal a person's character, consider the home library of Sonny Vaccaro, the man credited with revolutionizing—and destroying—youth basketball.

Tucked amid the history books and biographies is an unsettling portrait of the very basketball system Mr. Vaccaro helped create. Published in 1990, Raw Recruits describes the seamy deal-making among college coaches, shoe companies, and travel-team operators who populate the basketball recruiting scene, with Mr. Vaccaro at the center of it all. Twenty years later, the sordid tales are still relevant. What's changed is Sonny Vaccaro.

Three years have passed since Mr. Vaccaro ended his decades-long career as a marketing executive with Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, for which he oversaw large-scale events for elite teenage players and dished out money and perks to coaches and teams alike. Now, in a new period of his long involvement with the game, Mr. Vaccaro, who is 70, has embarked on a personal quest of sorts. If he succeeds, he could fundamentally change college sports. He could also change his legacy.

In this new life, Mr. Vaccaro consults with lawyers and attends court hearings in a closely watched federal lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association that could have a major impact on amateurism, a key tenet of college athletics. He travels the country speaking to business and law students at prestigious universities to drum up support for the case, railing against a status quo in college sports that he says exploits the very athletes that make it thrive.

His fight strikes many as not only quixotic but also self-serving. After all, this is the Sonny Vaccaro who, in 1989, while working at Nike, said of summer basketball, "It's a cesspool, and we start the process." Why would the man who did so much to influence the game—and, by extension, big-time college sports—want to change it? Perhaps more important, can he?

These days, Mr. Vaccaro takes great pains to point out that he wasn't the only one who splashed in the metaphorical cesspool. And he defends having given kids from tough backgrounds a chance to show off their skills for college coaches. But setting the record straight means more than just clarifying old statements. It means action.

"I had to spread the word," he said during a recent interview at his home. "It's almost like being one of the gospel guys. At some point in time, you've got to go spread the word, and you've got to give something up."

So long as he was running events for sneaker companies, he said, he couldn't speak up for athletes. Whenever he did, he said, critics would dismiss his comments as a ploy to lure talented players to his events. So he left.

The lawsuit is what now takes up Mr. Vaccaro's considerable energy. Last fall he and his business partner and wife of 26 years, Pam, sold their 6,000-square-foot house and left the sun-kissed hills of Southern California for this seaside hamlet, 300 miles to the north. With most of their belongings in storage, the Vaccaros now occupy a modest rental home a stone's throw from the Pacific Coast Highway.

Here they work in adjacent offices linked by a bathroom whose sink is stacked high with files. They spend most of their time engrossed in the latest developments of the case, filed last summer by Ed O'Bannon, a standout player on UCLA's 1995 national-championship team, who has known Mr. Vaccaro for more than 20 years.

In the lawsuit, Mr. O'Bannon claims that the NCAA has violated federal antitrust law by barring college athletes, once their playing days are over, from profiting from NCAA- or college-licensed products that use the players' "images and likenesses." Legal experts say the case, if the plaintiffs prevail, could force the association to deal with the contentious issue of whether its athletes should receive compensation.

Mr. Vaccaro is working as a consultant for the plaintiffs in the case, which is pending in federal district court in San Francisco, about two hours away. He has refused to accept payment for his services. "It is our life right now," he says, sitting at the same dining-room table where he and Ms. Vaccaro have fed countless young basketball players. "We're living here because of the case. It's that important."

'The Godfather'

In Sonny Vaccaro's old life, the busy month of July meant shuttling from his home, near Los Angeles, to sweaty gyms in New Jersey and Las Vegas. It was there that the effusive Mr. Vaccaro earned the nickname "the godfather of summer basketball."

But his influence has extended far beyond the basketball court. Starting in the 1980s, he signed college basketball programs, and then entire athletics departments, to lucrative shoe and apparel contracts. The deals opened up a sizable new revenue stream for hungry programs and turned college athletes into walking endorsements. Mr. Vaccaro negotiated many of these deals, and as a result, has been blamed for kicking open the door to commercialization.

On the summer-basketball circuit, he was no less pivotal, and no less scrutinized. His camps and all-star games were among the biggest in the country, luring hundreds of teams and legions of college coaches, who came to scout the talent.

But "summer basketball" has now become code for a host of problems the NCAA has tagged as among its top priorities to fix. Critics blame the shoe companies' influence on the game for encouraging young athletes to lust after lucrative endorsement contracts while shortchanging their educations. And many grass-roots teams, which are not affiliated with high-school programs, operate as independent entities, with little oversight. As a result, some athletics departments have hired travel-team coaches as a way to recruit star players—a practice the NCAA recently banned.

Last year the NCAA and the NBA announced a joint program, called iHoops, intended to clean up the summer scene. Len Elmore, a lawyer, ESPN analyst, and former NBA player, is the organization's chief.

Mr. Vaccaro's work with Nike and Adidas over the years "helped establish an environment that was pretty much ripe for distortion," Mr. Elmore says. "I'm not saying he played a direct role in it, but certainly he was someone who commanded the environment."

Mr. Vaccaro readily takes credit for having built the summer circuit and for signing athletics programs to the first apparel contracts. But he will not accept blame.

Audio: Sonny Vaccaro discusses his work on behalf of sneaker companies. (1:33)

Colleges readily agreed to the terms of the contracts, he argues, and coaches stood to profit as much as anyone, even sending Mr. Vaccaro letters with the shoe sizes of their wives and kids. The universities, he says, were willing partners. "They commercialized their student-athletes. They were Adam and Eve. ... They took the apple. They bit the apple. I offered it to them, and they bit it. You can't condemn me."

Mr. Vaccaro has particular disdain for the NCAA, an organization he sees as arrogant and out of touch. "They very selfishly use these kids to perpetuate their myth of amateurism," he says. But his repeated blasts against the NCAA, the major conferences, and the NBA, whose age-limit rule for players rankles Mr. Vaccaro to no end, have not helped him gain the ear of power brokers. (The NBA requires players to be 19 and at least one year out of high school.) What's more, his willingness to help a handful of top players avoid college altogether and find professional opportunities overseas has infuriated college officials.

College athletes are not employees, says Bob Williams, a spokesman for the NCAA. "There are plenty of opportunities if athletes want to be paid for what they do, and if that's the case, they can go to the professional leagues," he says. As for Mr. Vaccaro's contention that the association takes advantage of athletes, Mr. Williams responds, "I think any reasonable person who's knowledgeable of the facts would look back over last three decades and come to a different conclusion of who's exploiting who."

Players as Commodities

Still, as an outsider not beholden to an institution or program, Mr. Vaccaro clearly relishes his freedom to make unpopular arguments.

One of his most consistent complaints is that the NCAA's rules governing athletes, especially those that limit scholarships to one year and require athletes to sit out a year after transferring, treat players like commodities to be traded at convenience. He recently produced a list of more than 300 Division I basketball players who, by late June, had already transferred to other institutions—presumably in part because of recruiting promises left unfulfilled—where they will lose a year of eligibility.

Many of Mr. Vaccaro's points are legitimate and even necessary, given the significant influence of a powerful organization like the NCAA, says Paul H. Haagen, a professor at Duke University School of Law who specializes in sports law. But, he adds, Mr. Vaccaro "also comes with levels of baggage that cause people to dismiss him and not to take seriously what he's saying."

If Mr. Vaccaro's message amounted to less of an attack on the NCAA, says Mr. Elmore, people might be more inclined to listen. "Because what happens is, it appears to be ... a personal vendetta. And we need to take our personalities out of this." 

 It's unlikely Mr. Vaccaro will take his personality out of anything he does.

John Paul Vaccaro grew up in the steel town of Trafford, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, the son of an Italian-immigrant father, and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at Youngstown State University. A talented football and baseball player whose athletic career was cut short by injuries, he had early stints as a schoolteacher, a music promoter, and a Vegas poker player. He developed close contacts with basketball coaches around the country after starting the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an annual high-school all-star game in Pittsburgh, in 1965. In 1977 he joined Nike, then a modest operation looking to make inroads in basketball, for a monthly salary of $500.

While Mr. Vaccaro is proud of the business deals he struck over the years, he speaks often and fondly of "the kids"—the players, many of them now middle-aged—he has known through the decades. He saves all of their letters, addressed to him in boyish script, with postmarks from places like Baltimore, Newark, Chicago, Jacksonville, and St. Louis.

One of those kids was Mr. O'Bannon, who attended Mr. Vaccaro's well-known ABCD Camp. He says Mr. Vaccaro—who had signed Michael Jordan to a Nike endorsement that would turn into one of the highest-profile marketing deals in sports history—was a "godlike figure" to the campers.

"We knew who he was and who he represented," Mr. O'Bannon said in an interview. "Every kid in camp wanted to get that big Nike contract, wanted to play great at camp, wanted to make the NBA."

Sensitive to a perception that his career has been built on personal gain, Mr. Vaccaro points to the letters as evidence of his true feelings. "If I didn't give a crap," he says as he riffles through the envelopes, "why would I have all this?"

He saves other things, too, but for strategic rather than sentimental reasons. A voracious consumer of news, Mr. Vaccaro clips stories about his foes, and about topics related, even tangentially, to his crusade. He retains clippings of every article ever written about him, including a 5,000-word profile in The New Republic from 2008 dubbed "The Pivot."

There is still a touch of western Pennsylvania in Mr. Vaccaro's voice, which rises to an indignant crescendo when he gets riled up. He frequently spins off on tangents, his mind outpacing his voice, and rarely completes a sentence. "Now you've really got me going," he says after one outburst.

This behavior baffled at least one student group to whom Mr. Vaccaro has spoken as part of his campaign to appeal to a new audience. The law students, accustomed to articulate speakers with clearly defined agendas, puzzled over his all-over-the-map approach.

His tactics may be unorthodox. But Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group of 14,000 current and former Division I athletes that advocates for many of the same issues as Mr. Vaccaro, says the aggressive rhetoric strikes exactly the right tone. The NCAA "doesn't respond to people asking nicely," he says. "It responds to force: lawsuits, new laws, public criticism through the media. I think he's doing exactly what he needs to do if he's going to inspire change.

"Look who he's talking to. He's talking to the future lawyers. He knows where the power lies."

Awaiting the 'Revolution'

If Sonny Vaccaro's basketball ventures have met with criticism or outright resentment from some, one thing they've never been called is unsuccessful. The man who keeps files on opponents and friends alike has not thrown his weight behind doomed causes. He sees this as his moment, and he's in it to win.

The O'Bannon case has already proceeded further in court than most federal claims against the NCAA typically do. In March the judge denied the NCAA's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and both sides are now preparing for the discovery process. Mr. Vaccaro, who served as a matchmaker between Mr. O'Bannon and the high-powered law firm of Hausfeld LLP, is involved in most of the meetings of the legal team and attends all of the court proceedings.

He believes that the case will show a sports-loving public how the proverbial sausage is made in college athletics. "If the public is explained the gross injustices," he says, "they'll be on your side."

The case, which seeks class-action status, now has a dozen or so named plaintiffs. All were star athletes in their day, and many won national championships on their respective basketball and football teams. Among them are four players from the NCAA's 1966 national basketball title game, in which an all-black team from Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) upset an all-white team from the University of Kentucky.

Audio: Sonny Vaccaro discusses the O'Bannon case. (0:37)

The debate over whether college athletes should profit from their playing time has dogged college sports for years. The question has grown particularly charged as football and basketball generate ever more revenue for colleges, and as technology has opened up an array of commercial opportunities using athletes' likenesses. Mr. O'Bannon's case in particular has brought more attention to a waiver that athletes sign when accepting a scholarship, which authorizes the NCAA to use their names and pictures to promote NCAA events, giving up all future rights in the association's licensing of those "images and likenesses."

Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School who focuses on sports law and has written about the O'Bannon case, says Mr. Vaccaro's willingness to push the issue of whether athletes should receive compensation, even retroactively, forces people inside and outside intercollegiate athletics to confront a concept many feel is threatening.

"People love college sports. To suddenly change it to where college players are paid would change the way we look at college sports," Mr. McCann says.

To Mr. Vaccaro, however, the quandary is almost purely one of labor and compensation—with the wrong people benefiting from a distorted market.

"He really is trying to get at the questions of what's the appropriate interaction of education, athletic competition, and kids—particularly kids who come from fairly tough backgrounds," says Mr. Haagen, the law professor at Duke. "I think Sonny had this kind of intuitive sense that a lot of the amateurism talk was not correct. ... What he really understands is the beginnings of an effort to try to get dollars to people who are producing value."

Mr. Vaccaro is more blunt: "I think we'll have a revolution in four or five years. And if O'Bannon wins, it'll come a lot quicker."

It's not clear exactly what Mr. Vaccaro's new world would look like if he were to win this battle. He does know that, for now, he's on his own.

Even the college coaches—the people he once spoke with on a daily basis, the men who sent handwritten letters thanking him for the free gear—keep their distance. These days, on the rare occasions that Mr. Vaccaro talks with a coach, he often hears this: 'What are you doing now, Sonny?'

"'What am I doing now?'" he repeats. "I laugh. I say, 'I can't even tell you. I'm still causing chaos.'"

A Basketball Legacy

Sonny Vaccaro's career took off four decades ago with an annual all-star game for high-school basketball players. It continues today with his work on behalf of the plaintiffs in a high-profile antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that aims to give former college athletes a cut of the profits from commercial ventures that use their names and pictures.

1965 Starts the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an all-star game for high-school basketball players, in Pittsburgh.

1977 Begins working for $500 a month at little-known Nike, which was looking to make inroads in basketball.

1984 Signs Michael Jordan to his first endorsement contract, paving the way for the Air Jordan shoe.

1989 Gets the U. of Miami to sign the first programwide apparel contract; dozens of other large programs soon followed.

1993 Takes position at Adidas.

1996 Signs rookie NBA player Kobe Bryant, fresh out of high school, to a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal.

2001 Criticizes college presidents on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics: "The biggest sin you ever made was taking our money, because you sold your souls."

2007 Quits Reebok with two years and a mid six-figure salary remaining on his contract.

2009 Former UCLA standout Ed O'Bannon files a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA challenging the use of athletes' images and likenesses; Mr. Vaccaro signs on as a consultant in the case.