Marketing Pioneer Takes Message to Campus

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 19 -- Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive who helped turn the youth basketball scene into a multimillion-dollar industry, has long been an outspoken critic of the NCAA. Now, he has a unique and unlikely audience. One of college basketball's most controversial and influential figures of the past 40 years has taken his fight to the halls of higher learning, starting with the Ivy League.

Nine months after leaving the shoe company business, Vaccaro began an East Coast university speaking tour Wednesday at Harvard Law School, where he criticized both the NBA and NCAA during a spirited, 90-minute lecture. Vaccaro, who said he hopes to "awaken America" with his message, will follow Wednesday's appearance with a lecture at Yale on Friday and another at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business on Sept. 26.

"I always prayed this would be my ending," Vaccaro, who will turn 68 on Sunday, said during an interview before Wednesday's lecture. "I have been working for this day for 68 years. This is the most significant thing I have done in my life, and it is payback for all the kids and parents who have been with me for 43 years. I'm fighting for kids I don't even know, who have no idea I'm fighting for them."

Vaccaro, who has worked for Nike, Adidas and, most recently, Reebok, is usually seen in public wearing a velour sweat suit and hobnobbing with college coaches, high school players and handlers at summer basketball camps. On Wednesday night, Vaccaro wore a button-down shirt and dress pants and hugged most of the few dozen law students in attendance.

Jihad Beauchman, a second-year law student, said: "Sonny and I don't necessary agree on the issues, but I like that he is so passionate about it. It's amazing that he has accomplished so much, but he still sees that his greatest goal is forthcoming."

Vaccaro criticized the NBA age restriction that stipulates a player must be 19 years old and one year out of high school before being drafted. International players must be 19 years old by the end of the calendar year in which they turn draft eligible, but they do not have a one-year waiting period after high school.

"We did not preclude these [foreign-born] kids from earning a living at the age of 18," Vaccaro said. "We forced our own people to do what -- go to college, because that's what we do in America. Why aren't all kids given the same chance to play in the league?"

Vaccaro also took aim at schools that profit from selling images from games starring their former athletes. He believes players should profit from such business transactions once their eligibility has ended.

"When did it become the right of NCAA to sell me into perpetuity?" Vaccaro said to the students. "They don't have the right to sell me forever. What the hell? You have to speak. You have the choice."

Vaccaro entertained the audience with stories of past and current battles with the NCAA. He said the NCAA requested Southern California freshman basketball player O.J. Mayo take a handwriting test to prove the validity of his standardized test scores.

Michael Menitove, a third-year law student, is the president of Harvard's Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law, which invited Vaccaro to speak. Menitove said: "We wanted someone who was controversial. We wanted someone who was opinionated. Agree or disagree, the NCAA is an issue that has certainly been at the forefront of conversation."

Vaccaro said Harvard only paid for his hotel room because he does not want to profit from the lecture.

"I am not Dick Vitale," Vaccaro said. "I'm not going to give pep talks to the football team. I wanted to go to these kind of universities, with these kind of students: journalists, business [people], lawyers. The new generation, I believe, are the ones who will carry the word. If there is going to be change, I want them to at least have the story correct."

Vaccaro left Reebok in January but remains active. He is writing a book about his career. He is meeting with officials in Los Angeles about his concept of a national basketball academy. He also is a consultant for the upcoming HBO film "ABCD Camp," the name of Vaccaro's New Jersey-based camp for high school players that ended in 2006. Vaccaro will be portrayed by James Gandolfini.

But he is not without critics. Brian McCormick, the author of "Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development," said in an interview earlier this week that while Vaccaro has had a positive impact on youth basketball, "in the grander scope, when he turned grass-roots basketball development into part of the shoe company marketing plan, development was ignored and a generation of players have been raised in a system that values exposure and player rankings more than learning the game and competing."

Many college coaches remain reluctant to praise Vaccaro publicly because he is a polarizing figure. Vaccaro said he recently has received the most attention from scholars at prestigious universities.

"They have paid attention to Sonny Vaccaro more than the people [coaches] I have done business with," Vaccaro said. "As I get toward the end of my quest, I find that my friends are people I had never met who were so opposite my quest. That is what makes what I am doing now so interesting."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company