Sonny Vaccaro Says Return Of College Football Shows Players Are In Charge. Next: Pay Them

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When you’ve been taught to believe the impossible can’t happen, you look for rational explanations when it does. The Big Ten is going to play football this fall. The Pac-12 is likely to follow suit. The university presidents and chancellors have voted on it and agreed to let it happen. How cute! It’s as if they think they’re in charge.

They aren’t. Not anymore. So don’t buy into the misdirection. This didn’t happen because Covid-testing technology changes made it possible, or execs in suits said it would or even because the President made a phone call. Those things helped; nothing happens in a vacuum. But it’s safe to believe your eyes on this. This was the moment athletes took over the sports world.

They’re in control now.

A little unsure of my own eyes, I wanted to talk with the one person who would know for sure: Sonny Vaccaro. It’s hard to explain who Vaccaro is, other than that he changed everything, created the shoe wars, made you know who Nike is, pumped money into amateur sports, tore everything apart, was painted as dirty and now, 80 and retired, took on the idea of amateurism entirely, stood up for the little guy and won. 

Other than that, not much.

“I’ve seen the evolution of the power of the athlete in America as well as anybody,’’ Vacarro told me Wednesday night. “I’ve watched the exodus from the way it used to be to the new beginning. The athlete was always the unconditional surrender-guy.

“Where we are now is almost the end of the rainbow. Athletes stood together as a team and said, `We’re going to play football.’ No matter who was involved professionally or politically, if the athletes hadn’t done what they did, this wouldn’t have happened. They joined for a purpose and they got the power. I think they broke the glass ceiling. They’ve broken through.’’

The Big Ten said just last month that they weren’t going to play football, that it wasn’t safe because of the virus. Now, league officials say that the hard work of their medical advisory board and new quick-result daily Covid tests changed everything. Uh-huh. Sure. And President Trump’s people held a media conference call to tell reporters that his phone call Sept. 1 to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren was the driving force.

What happened came from the ground up, not the top down. Football players across the country started a movement. You saw Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with an online petition that said, “We want to play’’ and “LetUsPlay.’’ You saw Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the same statement. Other players followed. Lots of players.

There is clearly a change, whatever you think of it. NBA players stopped playing when they decided to make a social justice stand. Other athletes in other sports did the same thing. And you can argue over whether they’re accomplishing anything, or whether they’ve become corporate puppets, or whatever. 

But in the case of Big Ten football — and the Pac 12 will surely be next — their message was about having a voice, being heard, being part of the decisions being made that affect their lives.

However you feel about them having that power, it’s done. They have it. They’re playing football. The Big Ten’s reversal made it clear who’s in charge. And that’s not going to be where it stops, either. 

What’s next?

“No one’s asking that yet,’’ Vaccaro said. “But that’s the story of the day. The Big Ten commissioner, Warren, his out-of-the-box statement was `We’re not playing.’ Nobody was contesting it. Coaches were bitching and moaning. But then the players said, `Nope, you’re depriving us our rights.’

“They controlled whether they were going to have a season or not. Now, they control whether they’re going to be reimbursed. That’s what a smart lawyer is going to say tomorrow, or next week.’’

“They controlled whether they were going to have a season or not. Now, they control whether they’re going to be reimbursed. That’s what a smart lawyer is going to say tomorrow, or next week.’’

Sonny Vaccaro

That’s right. The athletes now have the power to make schools pay them for the sports revenues they’re generating. 

But not only that. Vaccaro said that players are now in position to push for revenue sharing. Also, they can get the shoe money, and more.’

“You really think television gives a shit who they make a deal with?’’ Vaccaro said. “You really think a shoe company cares? They just want you to wear the shoes.

“You think the drink companies and shoe companies that are the major sponsors care? They just want you to drink their Gatorade. I said that in `77 and everyone shot me.’’

Look, Vaccaro is the person who first talked Nike into putting all of its money into Michael Jordan and basketball. He talked the shoe companies into paying coaches to have their teams wear the shoes. At the time, that looked dirty, until the colleges decided they wanted a piece of that money, too. You see, everyone plays a little dirty. But with all the money going around, the players never had the power to get it.

Vaccaro was also a driving force behind the Ed O’Bannon case. Without getting into too many details, that just recently allowed college athletes to make money off of their images.

“Some athletes are going to say what O’Bannon said. `Why can’t we get paid? Why can’t we own this?’

“They’re at the bargaining table,” Vaccaro said. “It used to be that no one even knew who was really representing them at the table. Now, it’s the athlete’s table. Look what they just did. They made a whole movement and got it done in 24 hours.”

He exaggerates. A little.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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  1. We’ll still have to hear from the players how “oppressed” they are, even after they get paid. That’s the shame in all of this. And don’t think Antifa-BLM isn’t SALIVATING at the prospect of getting their tendrils all over these newly-empowered and easily influenced dumb jocks. Soon no university will be able to avoid declaring fealty to BLM, no matter how many businesses they destroy and lives they take.

  2. College players CANOT be paid a salary because of title IX. It is a pointless argument because they would have to pay all the athletes the same; that is not going to happen.And they are not going to scale back the other athletics from other sports, which is what they would have to do .

  3. “ The athlete was always the unconditional surrender-guy.‘

    I’d play sports for a $100,000 “education.” Will these athletes pay tuition, tutors, etc from their “earnings” and have to make good on staying academically eligible?

    Regardless, Dan ^^^ points out title 9 so, maybe it’s a non starter.

  4. Okay pay them but lets deduct the free tuition, books, room and board , make it just like any regular student has to pay i say that’s fair and major university that could total 100k or more per year hows that.

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