Vaccaro selling idea, not sneakers

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -- Paul Nisenson was one of the 20 or so students who waited in line last night to talk some more to Sonny Vaccaro. Vaccaro spent a lifetime, made a nice living and a far-less-nice reputation talking to young men Nisenson's age, on the cusp of adulthood, eager for riches and immersed in sports.

For nearly all of those years, those kids were basketball players. Now, because he has something else to sell besides shoes, Vaccaro's audience is students such as Nisenson, a freshman from New Jersey, and some 200 of his classmates at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Decked out in a white Maryland baseball cap turned backward and a T-shirt with "Terps" across the front, Nisenson had stayed to hear Vaccaro for an hour and a half tell his life story and merge it into his new quest for economic fairness to athletes in high school, college and pro sports.

As far as Nisenson was concerned, it was time well spent.

"I know I've read things about Sonny," he said. "I wanted to see him in person to ask him some of the things I was interested in, and also to humanize what I'd read about him. The things I'd heard and read, they tend to victimize him, make him responsible for all the sins of youth sports, high school sports, college sports, pro sports. Now, I got to hear what he really had to say."

The crowd was full of youngsters like that -- which, to Vaccaro, made his trip to College Park time well spent, just as much as when he had spoken in recent months at Harvard and Yale law schools, at Duke and at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I think I'm resonating," Vaccaro said. "The kids are starting to know me, and that's what I wanted."

Vaccaro's quest is pretty quixotic, as he tilts at the NCAA (which last night he called "the most fraudulent organization that ever lived"), the NBA's age-limit policies ("the biggest [fraudulent] thing I've ever heard in my life") and the Olympics ("more fraudulent even than the NCAA").

And he is the first to acknowledge that he comes from within the belly of the beast. He does not apologize for being the source of the rivers of money that course throughout big-time college sports. Quite the opposite: He never saw -- and still doesn't see -- what was wrong with schools banking shoe money and players getting rich from their skills in ways they previously had been deprived. No, he doesn't even believe that the AAU basketball system -- much of which he controlled and which is routinely blamed for most things perceived as wrong at every level of basketball in this country -- is inherently corrupt.

After all the decades representing Nike, Adidas and Reebok before leaving the business behind, he has no real regrets and expressed few last night. On the contrary, he's glad to be free, as he sees himself, to talk about what really is evil about what's called "amateur" sports and about the new restrictions put on basketball players coming into the pros.

His mind has never changed about these things, he said, nor did his desire to talk about it. But, he added last night: "By doing so, I spoke as Sonny Vaccaro the individual, but I also spoke for Nike, Adidas and Reebok. I was a shoe salesman. They'd say I wanted to sell shoes, and they were right."

Now, Vaccaro, who turned 68 last week and is legendary in the business for signing endorsement deals for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and dozens of college basketball programs, has something else to sell: the concept that athletes have the right to be rewarded for their abilities, not constricted by them, and that other entities -- the NCAA, for example, and the networks -- have no right to cash in on those abilities indiscriminately.

After all, he said, repeating a theme he has used in each appearance so far, why are these students in school? For the same reasons players are playing.

"What are we doing this for?" he asked. "To make a living, to be wealthy and to be happy."

Which is why, he said, he had no remorse about the jobs he had. "Who was I hurting?" he said.

"If I can have one thing come of this," Vaccaro said afterward, as students and faculty streamed by to thank him and shake his hand, "I hope and I pray that we can go before Congress and talk about this."

It has been tried before, to virtually no avail. But it's unlikely anyone has come before Congress like Vaccaro, who said: "I know I've lived on both sides of the fence. I can live with it because the whole of it is, I've always wanted to tell my story. And I couldn't tell it until I divorced myself from it all."

A couple of hundred students heard the story, from a man whose reputation preceded him, and bought his story. It's worth hearing. Even the part about the man and his reputation. It makes the story even more worth hearing.

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