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
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #22 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Rethinking Sports Fandom with Author Craig Calcaterra – We discuss Calcaterra’s new book “Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game” and explore new ways to be a fan in the year 2022.
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Episode #21 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Chatting About a Broken Game With Baseball Writer Pedro Moura – Moura is a national baseball writer for Fox Sports. We discuss how and why the game of baseball is broken, what factors caused it, and offer a few thoughts on how to “fix” a great game.
Episode #20 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Coaching Youth and High School Sports Based On What’s Best for the Athlete’s Holistic Development – We chat with long-time youth, high school and college basketball coach Jim Huber.
Episode #19 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Capturing the Spirit of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League with Anika Orrock – We discuss the hoops AAGPFL women had to jump through to play the game they loved as well as the long-term impact and legacy they have in advancing sports opportunities for girls and women.
Episode #18 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking about the 50th Anniversary of Title IX and the Lia Thomas Controversy with Nancy Hogshead-Makar – Hogshead-Makar is a triple gold medalist in swimming, a civil rights attorney and CEO of Champion Women.
Episode #17 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports With Legendary New York Times Sports Columnist Robert Lipsyte – We chat about Lipsyte’s amazing career and some of the athletes he covered.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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