By Ken Reed

Sonny Vaccaro was once considered one of the most ethically-challenged people in sports.

Today, he says he’s seen the light and now fights passionately for economic justice for college athletes.

Last month, The New York Times ran an excerpt of a new book called “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the N.C.A.A.,” by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. Vaccaro is one of the key figures in the book.

Sonny Vaccaro was the primary player in the “sneaker wars” between Nike and Adidas in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Across those decades, he worked for both Nike and Adidas at different times. In the 2000’s he worked for Reebok. It was Vaccaro who came up with the idea to pay college basketball coaches to force their players to wear his brand of basketball shoes.

“We created the commercialization” of college sports, said Vaccaro of his former employer Nike. “We were the first corporate entity to be involved with a coach or a university.”

But in 2007, he says he saw the light and gave up his $500,000/year sneaker job to take on the NCAA on behalf of the players. He called the NCAA a “fraudulent organization.”

“They receive all these benefits off the backs of kids,” he said. “I don’t understand why their only interest is in making things hard for athletes.”

Vaccaro ended up teaming with famed social justice lawyer Michael Hausfeld and former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. They sued the NCAA based primarily on the argument that the association deprived players of rights to their own images. It’s important to note that all the time that Vaccaro worked for Hausfeld he didn’t accept a fee because he thought it might compromise his integrity in the fight against the NCAA. One of Hausfeld’s colleagues said that for the work he did, Vaccaro easily could’ve commanded $800,000 to $1 million.

Today, the O’Bannon case remains tangled up in our court system. Vaccaro hopes it ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court. If it makes it that far, and if he, Hausfeld and O’Bannon end up winning, the one-time ‘sneaker pimp’ could end up having his name alongside the likes of Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and Marvin Miller under the umbrella “Greatest Sports Reformers in History.”

It would be one of sports’ greatest turnaround stories.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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