Sonny Vaccaro turns college basketball reformer

Staff WriterMarch 26, 2009 

— Sonny Vaccaro, a man known more for making shoe deals with college coaches and running summer basketball camps, is embracing a new role these days: college basketball reformer.

Vaccaro, who has represented Nike, adidas and Reebok and signed Michael Jordan, came to the University of North Carolina on Wednesday evening to spread his message. He acknowledged up front that, for some people, the reform message is a difficult sell, coming from him.

"How many of you have heard of me?" he asks the packed room at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

Most everyone raised a hand.

"How many of you have met me?"

Almost no hands go up.

"How many of you have an opinion about me?"

Vaccaro, 69, was surprised he didn't see more hands but asked the audience made up mostly of students to make up their own minds about him.

After freely admitting that his life's work has contributed to the commercialization and drive for revenue in college basketball, Vaccaro said he wants the NCAA to admit their role, also. He has also called for the NCAA to allow college players the same right to earn money.

During his presentation Wednesday night, a screen behind him carries a headline referring to the NCAA as "The Billion-Dollar 'Nonprofit' Charade." Vaccaro told his audience he wants to see Congressional hearings held regarding the NCAA's nonprofit status.

"Please pay attention to me," he said. "Forget your Carolina blue. I want the Tar Heels to win. I want everybody to win. I want the players to win. I am not against individual schools or coaches. I'm against the system. The system is what's flawed."

His immediate recommendations include:

* Restore multi-year athletic scholarships that can't be revoked because of injury;

* Restore freshman ineligibility to force athletes to focus first on their studies;

* Schedule games according to the academic calendar, not for television ratings.

Vaccaro also assails the NBA's "one-and-done" rule that prohibits players from jumping directly from high school to the pros, forcing them to spend at least one year in college.

After his one-hour-plus presentation, Vaccaro sat for a brief one-on-one interview.

N&O: What do you think of [Raleigh Word of God senior] John Wall's situation?

Vaccaro: I think John could play in Europe. I don't think with his close ties to family ... that he would do it, that he'd go there for a year. He's good enough to do it. I don't think he will or is even inclined to.

N&O: Would he go to college if the NBA still allowed players to jump [directly from high school]?

Vaccaro: I don't believe he would, because I believe he would be a first-round pick.

N&O: Do you know his summer coach?

Vaccaro: I know Brian Clifton.

N&O: What do you think of his involvement? Is he operating in Wall's best interests?

Vaccaro: John has [a parent, and she's] entitled Brian to run this ship, so if the parent is agreeing, I can't disagree. ... In the real world, if John had an opportunity to go to college or to go to the NBA, and he chose the NBA, we wouldn't even be talking about it. I believe that more problems can happen the year they're in college than could ever happen while they're in high school.

N&O: It seems that a lot of the players who've gone from high school to the NBA have done well.

Vaccaro: They had [three] of them on the Olympic team. They had Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The biggest contracts in all of sports are Kobe and LeBron. [NBA Commissioner] David Stern is not telling the truth by saying that they should go to school. He's saying that so CBS gets good ratings this year. In the real world, they should let these kids go out of high school if they're good enough. If you don't think they're any good, don't draft them. ... Let's let John Wall see if he's good enough to go to the NBA.

N&O: What do you think of the so-called package deals where schools hire coaches or relatives of recruits?

Vaccaro: It's been happening forever. It's not something that just happened this year. Memphis has a guy every year. Danny Manning's daddy did it [at Kansas].

N&O: But isn't that benefiting somebody other than the player?

Vaccaro: Well, I don't know. I can't answer that, because the college coach did it. He did it. He wasn't concerned about the player. He was concerned about his team.

N&O: Your involvement in apparel deals for coaches fueled the drive for profits in college athletics.

Vaccaro: I did that, sir. I don't deny it. I agree. They took my check. The day they took my check, they lost all credibility with me. ... I played within the rules. All they had to say to me was that I couldn't do it.

N&O: How else, aside from speaking on college campuses, can you try to reform the game?

Vaccaro: I want to go to Congress, and I think we can get a hearing someday [on the NCAA's nonprofit status]. It's preposterous to think they're nonprofit. ... I'm not faulting them for running a business. I'm not saying they shouldn't do it. I'm saying they should pay taxes.

N&O: Did you ever take compensation from a school for steering a recruit there?

Vaccaro: Never in my life. I've talked to a lot of kids. What I have done is tell the kids I thought a school was wrong for them.

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