“Am I nuts?” Former sneaker pitchman and basketball promoter Sonny Vaccaro wants answers. How can the NCAA, the networks, the coaches and the athletic conferences all profit from big-time college athletics, while the players get nothing? How can the NCAA and NBA keep a talented basketball player from earning a living off of his unique talents until the player has attended college for at least one year? How can coaches sign lucrative contracts with sneaker companies and agree that all of their players will exclusively wear that particular brand of sneakers, while the players get nothing? How can the NCAA and its member institutions take advantage of players under the guise of amateurism, while running a multi-million dollar business? “Am I nuts?”
Last week, I attended the Columbia University Sports Ethics Symposium, which discussed the topic of amateurism in modern day sports. The keynote speaker was Sonny Vaccaro. Vaccaro has been an outspoken critic of the NCAA and NBA, particularly with respect to whether players should be forced to attend college before playing in the NBA, and whether players should profit from the money that they generate for their school and the NCAA.
After 5 minutes listening to him speak, there is little wonder why he has been a successful pitchman for Nike, Reebok and Adidas. Vaccaro has energy, passion and charisma to spare. To attempt to summarize Mr. Vaccaro’s speech – which excitedly jumped from topic to topic, criticizing everyone from the NCAA, college coaches, athletic directors, athletic conferences, etc., littered with the rhetorical question “Am I nuts?” - would be impossible. But there two points that were particularly interesting in this far-reaching debate.
“When did it become the right of the NCAA to sell me into perpetuity?” Vaccaro was highly critical of the NCAA, schools and the athletic conferences for selling the rights to broadcast games and selling DVDs of games. Vaccaro points out that the NCAA, schools and conferences are profiting from these games, long after game is over and the players’ careers have ended The players, of course, receive nothing.
While Vaccaro advocates mainly for basketball players, I prefer to use an example from college football – Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie. Flutie’s game winning touchdown pass against Miami in 1984 is replayed every football season; it has been incorporated into ESPN’s SportsCenter opening montage and is replayed on ESPN Classic seemingly every year. Pontiac has used the highlight in connection with a marketing campaign built around college football. According to Vaccaro, players like as Flutie who actually authored this historic play, get nothing, while everyone else profits from the constant reruns, replays and other merchandising opportunities.
Vaccaro’s argument has some merit. Maybe players shouldn’t become millionaires off broadcasting rights and DVD sales, but some compensation might be in order, even if some portion of the money was allocated to an insurance fund for former players. Considering the plight of former NFL players, who have engaged in a well-publicized fight for better health benefits from the NFL Players Association, there might be a place for a health care fund for former college athletes in need. One panelist, Gary Charles, had a creative idea to compensate players – an escrow fund available once players graduate, to give them a head start as they joining the working force. As I understood it, this fund would not go to the top players who leave school early for the riches of professional sports, but to those who stay in school and graduate. An interesting idea, and one that might alleviate the general discomfort with a “pay for play” system in collegiate athletics.
“Why Should the Top 1% of players bear the burden for all other collegiate athletes?” Vaccaro believes that the star players that create revenue for the schools should be compensated in some fashion. A myriad of arguments have been made for either side. But the question raises an important point in the conversation about amateurism. The players for whom Vaccaro advocates constitute a very small percentage of collegiate athletes. As commercial as big-time athletics have become, the system does allow for a school to maintain many other athletic teams and programs that are clearly not profitable. As Notre Dame football might support the field hockey team, the Fairfield Science department might help support the American studies program. This model allows colleges and universities to provide diverse opportunities for learning and competition that might otherwise be unavailable. As flawed as the system might be, it works for most student-athletes. Moreover, most Division I schools will tell you that their athletic programs are not profitable.
Vaccaro covered many other topics, but the pervasive theme was whether amateurism was an outdated concept in today’s sports world. The answer is likely yes – amateurism is dead – but only for a very small percentage of schools and very few athletes, who are passing through college to prepare for a career in professional football or basketball. The large majority of student athletes still exemplify the ideals of the amateur athlete.