Sonny Vaccaro spun around, almost tripping on the wire attached to his microphone.
The controversial 68-year-old sports marketing genius was yelling now, ranting against the NCAA.
“Student. Athlete. Non-profit. Don’t you see? It’s a trick,” said Vaccaro, surveying a room of about 50 sports law practitioners.
Vaccaro was a controversial selection as keynote speaker for the Columbia University Sports Ethics Symposium, which was held April 24 at NFL Headquarters in New York City. He showed why in a 30-minute warmup speech, before settling back into a panel discussion with Chris Bevilacqua, Co-Founder of CSTV Networks; Adolpho Birch, General Counsel of the National Football League; Gary Charles, a power broker with regard to youth basketball select teams in the New York area; Robert Lipsyte, an Award-winning sports journalist; and Chris Monasch, the AD at St. Johns University. Gus Johnson, a Play-by-Play Announcer for CBS Sports, moderated the symposium.
Vaccaro is widely credited with introducing the concept of show contracts for contracts, summer camps for high school basketball stars and identifying other revenue-producing niches in the sports marketing world.
So it would surprise no one that Vaccaro painted the NCAA as a self-serving and domineering when it comes to taking advantage of underprivileged student athletes. “One percent of the athletes pay for 90 percent of the budget of the typical athletic department,” he said.
Pity poor Monasch, who had the primary responsibility of defending the NCAA in an anti-NCAA environment. More than once, he pointed out that if the NCAA is indeed self-serving, what does that make Vaccaro. To his credit, Vaccaro didn’t disagree, but rested on the position that the NCAA portrays itself as a “non-profit.”
Monasch was central to another story line that emerged during the symposium, concerning whether today’s college athlete are truly amateurs, or not by virtue of the scholarship they receive. Monasch maintained that the scholarship was a valuable commodity. He had the support of Bevilacqua, who used to be a wrestler at Penn State University.
Birch empathized with athletes and the level of scrutiny they must endure. He noted that if actor Kiefer Sutherland is arrested for a DUI, he isn’t suspended by the network from a few episodes of his hit show “24.” An athlete, by contrast, would typically face an immediate suspension.
Birch also spoke of the indignity an athlete faces when being drug tested in front of witnesses.
In addition, he highlighted the double standard that athletes face when using performance enhancing drugs. He noted that newscasters use Botox to improve their appearance, which sets a bad example for young people, and yet they are not penalized for using such drugs. Athletes face punitive penalties for using them. To be fair, Birch was not suggesting that penalties for steroid use be modified, only that professional athletes sacrifice and earn their compensation.