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Saturday, September 29, 2007
Recap of Sonny Vaccaro's talk at the University of Maryland

Earlier this week, Sonny Vaccaro spoke at the Robert H. Smith School of Business on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Tim Lemke of the Washington Times has all of the details on his excellent blog, Tim Lemke's $ports Biz Blog.

Here is an excerpt:

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Vaccaro spoke for about 75 minutes before about 200 students of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Many of the students are enrolled in a new sports management program tied to the school's Undergraduate Fellows Program.

Vaccaro's speech basically had two parts: a summation of his professional life and a harsh criticism of the NCAA and NBA.

Some highlights:

- Vaccaro reiterated his arguments against the NBA's new age limit, calling it "arbitrary and unlawful. ... It's pathetic that we would deprive an individual from earning a living."

- Vaccaro called the NCAA "the most fraudulent organization that ever lived." He got particularly animated when speaking about the NCAA's broadcasting of old game footage without compensating players for using their likeness. "What gives them the to use my image forever?" he asked.

- He says that when working for Nike in 1984, he convinced company executives to throw all of their money at Michael Jordan, rather than spread it around to three or more players who were turning pro. (The 1984 draft also featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, among others.) "I said, 'you're missing it. You're supposed to give it all to Jordan."

- Early on in his Nike career, Vaccaro came up with the idea of outfitting coaches and teams. Nike executives told him to give it a try, but to "try it out with someone he trusted." He quickly signed a deal with Jerry Tarkanian.

- Vaccaro called Kobe Bryant "the most dedicated, most gifted athlete I've ever seen" and "the most driven sucker I've ever seen."

- Vaccaro was with Adidas when LeBron James turned pro, and knew that Nike would offer an enormous amount to the much-hyped star. Adidas, he said, didn't believe James was worth that much. "Adidas didn't want to push the envelope," he said. Vaccaro quit Adidas after James signed with Nike for $90 million.

I had the chance to meet Vaccaro briefly after his speech and conducted this Q&A:

Q: So how come you're here in this lecture hall instead of over at Comcast Center talking to Gary Williams and his team? I imagine you wouldn't be here if you were still working for Nike.

A: No, I wouldn't. That's why I quit. Because I wanted to be in this position. I went to Harvard and I went to Yale before this, and I'm going to other business schools and law schools. And I did that because I wanted to do this. Because I wanted to tell the students and the public that this is the world, and these kids have to know about it. Because they are the ones that will be making the decisions. I wanted to show them the big business of sports, college sports. Athletes, they just participate in it. It wouldn't mean anything and they couldn't make change anyway. These kids (pointing to the students in the room) are going to have a different perspective. If I'm going to get after the league on the age thing, or get after the NCAA and their right to keep selling these game forever and ever. These kids can best get my message out. You wouldn't have come if I was talking to the basketball team, and I knew that.

Q: There are two high-profile guys drafted this year that spent one year in college last year though they probably could have been drafted out of high school, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. They've been drafted and got big money. Some might ask, what was the harm in them going to school, since everything worked out okay for them?

A: Only because you can say everything worked out okay for them. What if it hadn't worked out ok for them? Now, I'm not saying that isn't true, but I'm saying no one else had the right to make that decision.

Q: Is it tough to argue against the age limit when the union actually agreed to it?

A: Sure, they did. I can't fight it, so what I'm trying to get done is that at the next collective bargaining agreement they give second though to it. I'm talking about the future, I'm talking about the kid that doesn't even know we're talking about it.

Q: You talked a lot about how much money these schools are pulling in from athletics while the athletes aren't seeing any of it. What would you advocate..some sort of compensation program for these players? Would you eliminate the concept of amateur athletics altogether?

A: My basic premise is that at the top level, it's not amateurism. Take the's basically a lottery for playing for $14 million in the National Championship game. When they made it a lottery, I said to them "it's nothing more than a business." Why don't they have 50 schools playing and give them all $25? And the very fact that they spread it out over 14 games, and then saying 'we can't have a tournament because of the academic schedule,' that's bull****. And it's fraudulent, because six people from six schools basically control the BCS. Morgan State can't make it. Appalachian State, even they went undefeated, would have been precluded from even having a chance to win the lottery. And that's not fair."

For the rest of Tim's piece (which includes some more great questions/answers), click here. For Sports Law Blog coverage of Sonny's other talks, see our posts on his Harvard Law School and Yale Law School talks.


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