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Sonny Vaccaro: Scandal shows need to pay college players

Sonny Vaccaro during the first day of competition

Sonny Vaccaro during the first day of competition at the Reebok ABCD Camp in the Rothman Center at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey on July 6, 2005. Credit: Sporting News via Getty Images / Sporting News Archive

Sonny Vaccaro, the former sports marketing executive who is credited with jump-starting the commercialization of college basketball, believes paying players will deter them from accepting the type of bribes that are at the center of the federal fraud charges filed Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors filed charges in Manhattan against 10 people, including four coaches from top programs in a wide-ranging college basketball scandal. Among the allegations are that a sneaker executive funneled $150,000 to one high school player and $100,000 to another to steer them toward committing to universities that are contracted to promote their apparel.

“The blame is at the top,” Vaccaro, 78, said, referring to the NCAA. “Kids are put in the situation where the enticement is too big for some of them to overcome. I’m not sticking up for them. No one should have done it. But we don’t know their circumstances. We don’t live in their shoes.”

College athletes at top Division I programs are permitted only to receive cost-of-attendance stipends, which typically amount to a few thousand dollars per school year.

NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying, “The nature of the charges . . . are deeply disturbing. We have no tolerance whatsoever for this alleged behavior. Coaches hold a unique position of trust with student-athletes and their families and these bribery allegations, if true, suggest an extraordinary and despicable breach of that trust.”

Vaccaro believes providing players with “an honorable stipend” for the publicity they provide the university would help fix a system in which the players too often fall prey to those dangling money.

“The players need to be given a stipend to stop the flow of money where everybody gets rich but the players on the court,” he said. “They’re 17, 18, 19 years olds who in most cases don’t have a penny in their damn house.

“Now someone is going to come and say just do this and I’ll give you a $100,000. You tell me you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t have anything. I don’t know if you could. I don’t know if I could.”

Vaccaro, who worked with Nike, adidas and Reebok during a 30-year career, is widely credited with devising the business plan in which sneaker outfitters pay coaches and schools in exchange for their players wearing their product.

This system has maximized the reach of commercial products and been a financial boon for college athletic programs while also potentially opening the door for non-university officials to have greater influence on the program.

Vaccaro also ran sneaker-sponsored summer camps attended by the best high school players and top college coaches, was often called “sneaker pimp” for his constant middleman role and was the regular focus of NCAA investigations but never implicated in any wrongdoing.

Vaccaro said he stepped away from his sneaker business in 2007 because he was disillusioned by how he felt the players were being taken advantage of. He has since become an outspoken critic of the NCAA and defender of players.

Vaccaro said “I don’t feel any guilt” because he said this was not what he had in mind when he cut his first deal with coaches in 1977 and his first with a university was a decade later.

The magnitude of those sneaker deals have grown enormously through the years. For example, last year UCLA signed a 15-year, $280-million deal with Under Armour, considered the largest in college basketball history.

“It’s gone way beyond what Sonny Vaccaro and Nike did in 1977,” he said.

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