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Under Armour's Ties With Maryland, Courtship of Top Recruit Stephenson Raise Questions
If Under Armour is to have any hope of making an impact in such a competitive culture, it will need high-profile players, and because these relationships are conceived long before players enter the NBA, that means targeting and wooing athletes at the same time colleges are doing the same thing. Vaccaro said Under Armour is trying to build a relationship with Stephenson to make him one of its first prominent faces.
"He would be a logical player you would want to sign," said Vaccaro, who has been a confidant of Stephenson's since inviting him to ABCD Camp as an eighth-grader, thus helping to create the prep star's outsize reputation. "He would be the O.J. Mayo of this class."
Shoe companies will go to great lengths to attract talent. In July 2004, Pangos, a company that had not even produced its first shoe, held a middle-of-the-night tournament in Las Vegas. And three years ago, Reebok pursued Renardo Sidney so aggressively that it hired his father before the player had even played one high school season. But which shoe company-sponsored camp attracts the best players ultimately is immaterial, Adidas representative David Pump has concluded, because "one camp might have the best players, but at the end of the day, who is selling the most shoes?"
A Gray Area
From the NCAA's perspective, complexities arise when the company selling the shoes is owned by a person with a vested interest in a particular school: Is the company acting as an independent business or as a representative of the university's athletic department?
Vaccaro said Under Armour is "very conscious of Maryland's plight," referring to the fact that the men's basketball team is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons.
An important question considered in determining whether an NCAA violation has been committed, according to Josephine R. Potuto, a former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, is whether the company's actions constitute a promotion of the athletic interests of the university with which it has an affiliation.
Potuto, who spoke in general about compliance issues and not about any specific school's practices, said one factor in that regard is the number of schools with which the company in question holds contractual partnerships.
"The more that the relationship is confined to a smaller number of institutions, the greater the possibility that the conduct will be seen to inure to the benefit of a particular institution," said Potuto, a professor of law and the faculty athletics representative at the University of Nebraska. "If you are doing it for 100 or 200, then the claim that you are promoting a particular athletics department is much harder to make."
In September, Under Armour announced a five-year, $17.5 million deal that made Maryland the nation's only school to outfit all its teams with the company's apparel. The company is the official outfitter for 10 college football programs. Maryland is one of the few Division I basketball programs outfitted by Under Armour, and sports observers most closely associate the company with Maryland. One of the company's first memorable television advertisements featured Terrapins football coach Ralph Friedgen exhorting his team to "protect this house."
Vaccaro said the company's interest in Stephenson is not contingent on his college choice.
"If he goes to St. John's or Kansas, Under Armour will still go after him because now the relationship with Under Armour is built," said Vaccaro, who recently visited Stephenson in New York. "So they made a good move by getting him down there. Whether he goes to Maryland or not is immaterial. And he got a bunch of Under Armour stuff he is running around with. That's good."
Stephenson denied receiving any gear, but he reportedly test-wore Under Armour apparel during a recent high school game, even though his Lincoln High team is sponsored by another shoe company. And industry sources familiar with the recruitment said Stephenson recently was left off a Nike-affiliated all-star game largely because of his ties to Under Armour.