NCAA scandal shocks even Sonny Vaccaro

In carefully worded statements crafted in times of peril, it's easy to feign surprise and disgust.

When the FBI revealed last week what many inside college basketball had long talked about — that shoe company employees, financial advisers and a cast of other characters bribed coaches and players' families in an attempt to gain influence — high-profile figures across the sport did just as much.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said the nature of the charges was "deeply disturbing." Conference commissioners like John Swofford (ACC), Larry Scott (Pac-12) and Greg Sankey (SEC) turned to words such as "alarming," "reprehensible," and "troubling." For Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach whose program was implicated, the investigation came "as a complete shock." One day later, he was effectively fired.

To Sonny Vaccaro, one of the most prominent and influential figures in basketball history, there also was a level of surprise. A former sport marketing executive, Vaccaro had been around the game long enough to know about some of its more unseemly elements and the scandals they birth.

The scope of the investigation and the FBI's involvement, however, was unlike anything he had ever seen.

"You had the shoe companies, the university, the head of the shoe company, the head coach of the basketball team, the financial advisers, the regular agents, the kids and the parents, all in one corner," Vaccaro, a Trafford, Pa., native, said in a phone interview. "It was like they were all going to a birthday party and ended up in this kid's house. These people were all there at one time. I've never seen all the elements connected to an individual like in this particular case."

Though Vaccaro retired from the shoe business a decade ago, his perspective on the matter is very much relevant. It was he, after all, who first forged the relationship between basketball programs and shoe companies, one that later metastasized into the ugly charges revealed Tuesday.

While working as a high school teacher and coach in his hometown, Vaccaro became heavily involved in grassroots basketball and established valuable relationships with college basketball's top coaches. When he signed with Nike, then a smaller company primarily focused on running shoes, as a consultant in 1977 for $500 a month, he proposed an idea to his bosses that would turn his proximity to those coaches into something tangible. Nike paid thousands of dollars to those coaches, who weren't making nearly as much at the time, for their teams to wear Nike shoes and, later, apparel and uniforms.

As the years wore on, the values of those contracts swelled (last year, for example, UCLA and Under Armour agreed to a 15-year, $280 million deal that was the largest shoe and apparel sponsorship in college sports history). With that and with the emergence of camps sponsored by the various shoe companies for elite recruits, Vaccaro had fundamentally altered the landscape of amateur basketball.

Still, he said he never envisioned that environment getting poisoned to the point where federal investigators and the Department of Justice got involved. Initially, he and others at shoe companies wanted top prospects to attend their camps or attend one of their sponsored schools, but there never was money attached to those wishes.

Part of that backslide, to Vaccaro, came from the increased involvement of financial advisers, agents and managers, all of whom were once bit players in the sport.

Additionally, contracts between shoe companies and schools are much deeper than they once were. Deals that a company once had with basketball coaches are now with entire universities, signed off by presidents and athletics directors. With that, the stakes are much higher.

"It's an all-school deal at these kind of schools," Vaccaro said. "Pitt has an all-school deal with Nike. They are their business partners. So why wouldn't Nike want Pitt to win or why wouldn't Nike want their schools to win? That's what it is. They did a business deal worth millions of dollars. They are your business partners. Nike and the shoe companies want to sell shoes. The athletic departments want to win bowl games and go to the NCAA Tournament.

"To do that, there's one commodity that's relevant to both these elements: the athlete."

Vaccaro later worked at adidas and Reebok. While at the former, he hired Jim Gatto, the company's future head of global basketball marketing who was arrested on corruption charges Tuesday as part of the FBI's probe.

Tuesday's revelations also touched on another topic with which Vaccaro is all too familiar — the NCAA's amateur model and whether it still has a place in sports now worth millions of dollars.

A longtime critic of the NCAA, Vaccaro helped persuade former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon to file an antitrust lawsuit against the organization, challenging its practice of using the likeness of players for commercial purposes. In 2014, a judge ruled the NCAA's rules violated antitrust laws and ordered that colleges should be allowed to offer athletes scholarships that covered the full cost of attendance.

Vaccaro believes college sports' most recent scandal will further embolden those same athletes and that, perhaps, they eventually will be allowed to receive external income beyond a scholarship and stipend.

"My belief is that's what's going to come of this," he said. "I think players, because of the way society is politically and religiously, there is an open rebellion against unauthorized authority on individuals or overbearing authority by individuals that shouldn't be able to control you or your wages. I think athletes have learned a lot."

As for the NCAA itself? The findings of the FBI investigation, if anything, signaled to Vaccaro that changes are needed for college athletics' governing body.

"The NCAA, they should just run games," he said. "They have no authority to do anything legal to anybody. You break a rule and they don't let you play a half next game or the coach misses nine games. What the hell kind of penalty is that? When you say 'prison,' that's a different word. When you say 'going away,' that's a different word. The world is changing."

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