Sonny Vaccaro’s Monday morning started out exceptionally well.
The news of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling against the NCAA reached Vaccaro, the former shoe executive-turned-college sports reformer, before he had even cracked open his box of Cheerios.
“To be very honest, it seemed I would die before there would be an answer, one way or the other,” Vaccaro, 81, said in a telephone interview. “Then, it actually happened.”
Having once played a major role in the corporate sneaker takeover of college athletic departments, Vaccaro turned into a college athlete advocate, crusading against the unfairness of the NCAA’s restrictions on player compensation, and recruiting former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon to lead a class action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over athletes’ rights to profit from their own name, image and likeness.
Vaccaro’s transformation from college sports insider to dissident was the basis of Sole Man, an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and has been documented in a number of books chronicling the modern reform movement in intercollegiate athletics.
Almost five years ago, the Supreme Court denied petitions to hear the O’Bannon case, after an appeals court had ruled in favor of the former athletes, but vacated a lower court ruling that would have forced schools to pay men’s basketball and football athletes up to $5,000 annually in exchange for the use of their NIL while in school.
Vaccaro said Monday’s verdict in NCAA v. Alston proved that college sports’ governing body—and the institutions it represents—should have made a deal with the other class action athlete litigants in the wake of O’Bannon, instead of digging in with high-priced lawyers.
Vaccaro said that while the point of leverage has dramatically shifted over the last decade, the NCAA should still attempt to strike a deal with athletes before the organization is rendered entirely obsolete. With NIL now legislated into reality—and six state laws set to take effect July 1—Vaccaro said the NCAA’s only bargaining chip may be a revenue-share arrangement, between athletes and schools, over corporate money paid by shoe companies and the like to athletic departments.
While the NCAA still has plenty of legal options at its disposal, beginning with filing injunctions over the discrepant state-based NIL laws, Vaccaro says the fight-tooth-and-nail approach has proven a failure.
“The wise men at the NCAA, instead of spending another $100 million on lawyers, should find a way to end one of these fights,” Vaccaro said. “There is only one place for them to go if they don’t make a deal and that is extinction.”