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Money, marketing and the NCAA: Sonny Vaccaro's legacy

Before Sonny Vaccaro spoke last week as the keynoter at Drexel's Sport for Social Change Conference, he was introduced as the person who signed Michael Jordan to his first deal with Nike.

Before Sonny Vaccaro spoke last week as the keynoter at Drexel's Sport for Social Change Conference, he was introduced as the person who signed Michael Jordan to his first deal with Nike.

That must have been enough to gain the attention of all the Drexel students in the audience on Market Street. Here's the thing: When linking Jordan to Nike - facilitating what has to be the greatest marriage in the history of sports marketing - is maybe the third most impactful thing you've done with your life, you've had one interesting life.

At this point, Vaccaro goes down as one of the great thorns in the side of the NCAA, which is really why he was speaking at Drexel.

Vaccaro was the guy who thought to pay college basketball coaches to have their players wear Nikes, which later evolved into also paying schools for the right to use players as billboards. (No. 2 on the list?) More recently, Vaccaro was the man who, after consulting with attorneys, suggested to former UCLA all-American Ed O'Bannon that he and others sue over their postcollege marketing rights. Eventually, the case included rights of current players and a judge ruled earlier this year that NCAA limits on what athletes can earn from their images and names "unreasonably restrain trade."

The ramifications have already been felt. You think Mo'ne Davis, after being paid to make a Chevy commercial, would have been cleared so quickly from future penalties by the NCAA if not for this ruling? If the O'Bannon ruling survives appeals, the ramifications could change the business of college sports forever. The case won't be a footnote. It's a game-changer. It's No. 1.

If any Drexel sports management students expected a dry, academic evening, Vaccaro quickly alleviated such fears. His words often drew belly laughs, elicited by ESPN's Tom Ferrey.

"Stick to your opinion," Vaccaro said to the crowd at one point. "If you think I'm [a jerk], then tell me."

Vaccaro talked about all the money that flows through college sports coffers, adding, "They do everything except what?"

He meant, pay the players. Then Vaccaro went for the proverbial barnyard epitaph for his one-word description of the NCAA, and also talked briefly about what he described as an "illicit" relationship between the NCAA and the NBA which currently requires players to go to college - or anywhere but the NBA - for a year before they can apply for the NBA draft. He described a "summit" some years ago that was designed to clean up summer basketball. Vaccaro, the man who did more than anybody to set up the system, wasn't even invited.

While working for Nike, Vaccaro basically had designed the whole summer scene, putting together the landmark ABCD camp, drawing the top national talent to one place, plus virtually every college coach in the country.

"Some media," he told the Drexel crowd, "described it as a meat market." Of his days with Nike, Vaccaro said, "I had the ideas, they had the money."

There's obvious irony in the fact that this man who figured out how to get money into the hands of all sorts of people who didn't play the game ended up playing a key role in pointing out the hypocrisy of that system, with a judge deciding the money needs to be distributed in a different way.

Vaccaro always has found the high-minded ways of the NCAA to be absurd. Of who should be running the NCAA, he said, "I think you need a businessperson."

Vaccaro eventually moved on from Nike, taking similar roles in charge of grassroots basketball at Reebok and Adidas. One of his great gifts has been how he can speak to players in ways they understand immediately. Vaccaro is both street-smart and without pretext. Players always sensed sincerity. And when he told the world LeBron James was ready to turn pro after his junior year of high school, history shows Vaccaro knew what he was talking about. The larger context: James should have been allowed to do it.

In his landmark 2011 critique of college sports, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch began with a 2001 exchange between Vaccaro and the president emeritus of Penn State, Bryce Jordan, who asked, "Why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?"

Vaccaro's reply: "They shouldn't, sir. You sold your souls, and you're going to continue selling them. . . . You're going to take it. I can only offer it."

At Drexel, Vaccaro was asked about the NCAA's Penn State sanctions. No doubt realizing which state he was speaking in, and catching the anti-NCAA flavor of the question from an audience member, Vaccaro didn't sugarcoat his own opinions. He said of NCAA president Mark Emmert, "I despise the man for thinking he was God." He added, "Penn State will be the death of Mark Emmert, that's my prediction."

It's not often you hear a historic figure speak publicly with such brazen bluntness. Luckily for the NCAA there is only one Sonny Vaccaro.