One man believes the timing is right. Now is when major changes to the entire collegiate athletic system should be — and need to be — discussed.
The wide-ranging bribery scandal that led to 10 arrests, the likely end of Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s Hall of Fame coaching career and several prominent schools finding themselves in major trouble, demands it.
The accusations that college coaches were working with agents, sneaker company executives from Adidas and financial advisors to steer players to their schools in exchange for large sums of cash, and accepting handouts to push those players back to the professional moneymakers when turning pro, warrants it. The scandal is a gruesome black eye for the NCAA and covers much of the sport of college basketball.
“This is an opportunity for the NCAA to become human,” Sonny Vaccaro, the former Adidas, Reebok and Nike executive who signed schools to lucrative sneaker contracts and once ran grassroots basketball, said in a phone interview. “Do the right thing. Allow these kids to share in the revenues. This is their opportunity.”
Vaccaro is credited with starting the commercialization of the sport in the first place by giving out sneaker contracts to coaches he knew back in 1977. He understands the counter-argument to paying college athletes — that premier players will always be in demand, and therefore would likely command more benefits than their contemporaries. There would still be under-the-table deals, still be agents and sneaker companies working with college coaches for their own benefit.
His idea would be for the NCAA to install a separate entity that could accurately value what a student-athlete is worth, based on production and performance, how much money the respective program is bringing to the university. Allow the athletes to receive endorsements deals or make money off the likeness of their autograph or uniform. Offer a stipend. Give royalties. Any kind of compensation, he believes, would be an important first step.
It’s clear, by these arrests, the system isn’t working. Most experts expect the FBI’s investigation to mushroom far beyond the four assistant coaches arrested from Southern California, Oklahoma State, Auburn and Arizona, and the other schools implicated to this point — Miami, Louisville and South Carolina.
“I don’t believe if kids are allowed to share in financial things you’ll have as many [instances of benefits] as you’ve had,” the 78-year-old retired Vaccaro said from his home in Southern California.
Vaccaro wasn’t trying to excuse what went on. He described the accusations as “repulsive,” and said Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, whom he hired at Adidas years ago and was one of the 10 people arrested on bribery and fraud charges, should be ashamed of his actions.
“I’m not only surprised, I’m disappointed,” Vaccaro said. “It’s not the young person I remember. It’s sad. I went to his wedding when I was still working. I’m sad that anybody gets caught up in these things.”
But everything that took place happened because of the marketplace, because the only compensation student athletes receive to make millions of dollars for their university is a scholarship paying for their education.
“The biggest culprit in this, and you’re going to laugh at me, is the NCAA,” Vaccaro said. “The NCAA itself has this fraudulent thing that the public has gullibly swallowed, the courts have swallowed, called amateurism. The [five-star prospect] is no different than the young man signing with the Knicks or Nets. They’re professional at this level.
“[The NCAA] lives in an archaic self-serving world. They’ll never recognize how the athletes are being used. All these entities [in this scandal] are tied to one thing, the players getting recruited.”
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