Q & A: Sonny Vaccaro 

Former director of basketball programs for Nike, Reebok, and Adidas

One of basketball's most colorful figures for more than 40 years, Sonny Vaccaro was a summer basketball pioneer who, as a marketing executive, presided over the rising influence of shoe companies, helping to sign and market Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among others.

Now retired and awaiting an upcoming HBO film about his life (starring The Sopranos' James Gandolfini), Vaccaro has declared war on the NCAA and its partnership with the NBA, an affiliation that prohibits players from going directory from high school to the NBA.

Vaccaro has been on a college tour, railing against the current system. He'll be at the University of Memphis Thursday, April 17th, to deliver the keynote address at an Issues in College Sport symposium, which is free and open to the public. Vaccaro speaks at 8:30 a.m. at the FedEx Institute of Technology. He declined to offer his ideas for an alternative to the current college system, choosing to save that information for his speech, but he had plenty to say about what's wrong with college basketball.

by Chris Herrington

Flyer: Is it possible to be a "student athlete" if you're a high-level pro prospect at a Division 1 school?

Sonny Vaccaro: Not at all. The only ones who are student athletes are the ones [the NCAA] promotes during the tournament every year, who aren't in [revenue-producing] sports and are studying to be a veterinarian or whatever. That doesn't mean I'm saying that kids playing football and basketball can't be good students. What I'm saying is, their connection [to the universities] is primarily as athletes. They're athletes for hire. 'Lend-lease,' I call them.

Use the University of Memphis' Derrick Rose as a case study. He was probably the most celebrated player at the Final Four and is on billboards throughout the city of Memphis, and yet he doesn't directly benefit from any of the millions of dollars he's helping to generate. Is he an exploited worker?

Well, that's the basis of my argument. This shows you the hypocrisy of the governing organizations. They chose to [profit from] Derrick, but they didn't choose to include him in anything. And not just Derrick — all the celebrated lend-lease kids of this year, of which there were a lot. Basically, the one-year-and-out guys. At least when they had options — the option of coming straight [to the NBA] out of high school — you could say, well, they had the option to go professional and make money. But now they are forced, not asked, to go somewhere other than a place to make a living. The very nature of the universities taking them for one year precludes any intelligent person from thinking [these players were brought to college] for anything other than to make your school millions of dollars. It's incomprehensible to think it's anything else.

And now the speculation is that the NBA will try to impose a two-year eligibility restriction in the near future, forcing top players into the college system for even longer.

Quote me on this: Over my dead body would that ever happen. That would be the most egregious and presumptuous thing I've ever heard — that [NBA commissioner David] Stern and [NCAA president Myles] Brand could just idly talk about playing with people's lives. When they can talk about this so casually and then hide under the umbrella of amateurism, they've opened up something that I hope Congress goes after. They've admitted to forced amateurism.


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