Amateurism Goes on Trial, and Sonny Vaccaro Is Still on the Case

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Author: Brad Wolverton
Date: June 20, 2014
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 60, Issue 39.)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,279 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1110L

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Byline: Brad Wolverton

Oakland, Calif. -- When Ed O'Bannon showed up in court here on Monday to testify in a federal antitrust case against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, one of the first people he hugged was Sonny Vaccaro.

Much of the attention in the case, which challenges the NCAA's amateurism model, has been focused on Mr. O'Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star who sued the association over the commercial use of his image. But it is Mr. Vaccaro, a longtime shoe executive turned player-rights advocate, whose crusade against the association ( made this moment possible.

Mr. Vaccaro, who is 74, has been a fixture in college basketball for 50 years. As a shoe marketer, he helped spur the commercial explosion in college sports, signing dozens of universities to multimillion-dollar contracts and recruiting some of the game's most exciting players to endorse his products. (He helped put Michael Jordan in Nikes and persuaded Kobe Bryant to wear Adidas.)

But for years he was portrayed as a pariah, and he was investigated at least four times by the NCAA.

"They said I had power with players-that I was shipping them off to Nike schools," he said this week, standing outside the courthouse.

He denies ever telling an athlete where to enroll.

"It's their life," he said.

As he sees it, there is a fundamental flaw with the association's executives, and it has nothing to do with money.

"I knew these players," he said. "They never knew them."

On the streets, where Mr. Vaccaro did much of his work, the NCAA rules didn't always apply. Many of the athletes he recruited needed more than a few pairs of sneakers. The family of one highly touted prospect lived in a cardboard shanty.

As the money around the game got bigger and bigger-the NCAA now brings in roughly $900-million a year-Mr. Vaccaro grew more and more angry that the players were not getting a share. So in 2007 he quit his $500,000-a-year job at Reebok and began traveling the country, speaking at prominent universities about the hypocrisy he saw in the NCAA's system.

In 2008 he met Michael D. Hausfeld, a lawyer with a history of helping people who have been exploited, including Holocaust victims whose assets were taken by Swiss banks and Native Alaskans whose lives were upended by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Mr. Hausfeld, now the lead lawyer for Mr. O'Bannon and the other plaintiffs, is the brains behind the case. Mr. Vaccaro is the heart.

"My role was to get the emotion of what this fight was to the public," said Mr. Vaccaro. For him, that meant conveying the injustices perpetrated against the kids.

'Masquerading as a Student'

Mr. Vaccaro and his wife, Pam, have attended every hearing in the case, which was filed here five years ago, in U.S. District Court. They were fixtures this week, sitting near the back of the courtroom amid a throng of lawyers. They plan to attend all but one day of the trial, which is expected to last three weeks.

On the first day, they watched as Mr. O'Bannon, whom Mr. Vaccaro met more than 20 years ago, took the stand. The two men are a contrast in styles. Mr. Vaccaro has an opinion about everything, and his mouth can barely keep up with his mind. Mr. O'Bannon is soft-spoken and chooses his words carefully. When lawyers asked him questions on the witness stand, he often paused a few seconds before responding.

Over the past few days, the plaintiffs' lawyers have described how they believe the NCAA has unfairly restricted players from licensing their images, and how those restraints have affected the athletes. They are seeking an injunction that would put an end to the association's rules limiting such pay.

Mr. Vaccaro sees the case through a different lens. To him, it is about the gulf between the NCAA and its athletes. And that gap was never more clear than when he watched the association's lead lawyer, Glenn D. Pomerantz, question Mr. O'Bannon.

"Did you take some classes that you liked? Did you meet some friends? Did you enjoy the whole college life that UCLA offered?" Mr. Pomerantz asked. "You really wanted to go to class and learn, right? You found going to class and learning was fun."

The questions were intended to establish that Mr. O'Bannon had obtained an educational experience that went beyond the basketball court. But Mr. O'Bannon, a former most valuable player at the Final Four, was having none of it. He said he had lived off campus, rarely socialized, and studied as little as possible-instead spending most of his time in the gym.

"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," he told the packed courtroom. "I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."

Among the more contentious issues raised this week was what amateurism really means and why the NCAA has clung so tightly to it. Roger Noll, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University, testified that the NCAA is a cartel that fixes prices, restraining players from selling their services. He believes that athletes deserve a share of the licensing revenue from television broadcasts and that, absent the restraints, they would receive it.

A Long Fight Ahead

The NCAA has stood firm against change. Its officials believe that paying players would lead to competitive imbalance, create a backlash from fans, and damage the academic integrity on which its system is based.

But many amateur sporting events and organizations have abandoned the concept, Mr. Noll said this week. The most prominent example is the Olympic Games. After the 1988 Games, Olympic organizers began allowing professional athletes to compete. Since the rules were changed, the popularity of the Olympics has only increased.

Over the past year, college athletics leaders have continued to support the NCAA's amateurism model. But in recent weeks, a few have backed alternative ideas.

Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA, told ( that he would consider allowing athletes to receive licensing money that was set aside in a trust fund, an idea the O'Bannon plaintiffs have advocated. Wood Selig, athletic director at Old Dominion University, told The Chronicle he supported a similar idea.

"This case has heightened the level of conversation about what we might do as an industry to better take care of our student-athletes beyond handing them checks to play," Mr. Selig said. "It's unfortunate it's in litigation and we can't sit down without a judge ... and come up with a more reasonable solution."

Critics say the NCAA had plenty of opportunities to do that, and now will pay the price in court. If NCAA officials felt any pressure this week, they didn't show it. Donald Remy, the association's top lawyer, and Bob Williams, its head of communications, joked with reporters and brushed aside questions about kinks in their case. They see a long fight ahead.

Mr. Vaccaro, however, was on edge. He said he had been waking up at 4 in the morning, anxious to get to court.

"We're down to our last 15 days," he said on Wednesday, after court had adjourned. There will be other chances for players. But for Mr. Vaccaro, this is his shot.

Asked how he would feel if the players lost, he sighed, and sat quietly for a moment.

"Obviously it would break my heart, but it wouldn't break my spirit," he said. "You lose in life." He paused again. "As long as it was a fair fight."


Ed O'Bannon, a[umlaut]a former UCLA a[umlaut]basketball star, is a[umlaut]the lead plaintiff a[umlaut]in a federal a[umlaut]antitrust lawsuit a[umlaut]that challenges a[umlaut]the NCAA's a[umlaut]amateurism model.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Wolverton, Brad. "Amateurism Goes on Trial, and Sonny Vaccaro Is Still on the Case." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 June 2014. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A372960182