JULY 13, 2015
SINCE LAUNCHING the critically acclaimed film series 30 for 30, ESPN has redefined the genre of sports documentaries with hits like The Two Escobars, The Fab Five, and the recent I Hate Christian Laettner. But for all of ESPN’s success with its burgeoning creative venture, it’s worth asking whether or not a powerful sports entertainment company is best situated to handle the work of documentary filmmaking, let alone reporting or investigative journalism. It is, in particular, a question begging to be asked of Dan Marks and Jon Weinbach’s Sole Man, which chronicles the career of Sonny Vaccaro, an entrepreneurial visionary who played an integral role in the commercial ascent of the postmodern athlete and the overt corruption of youth and college basketball writ large.
Vaccaro, from a small blue-collar town near Pittsburgh, saw his legendary career begin to take shape at Youngstown State University, where he (as a student) managed to convince the school to admit his childhood friend Pat Dicesare, who hadn’t even filed an application. As Dicesare recalls, one day Vaccaro casually suggested he should go to college too, and
next thing I know, Monday morning I’m at Youngstown with him. Sonny’s telling them “Hey he wants to go to school.” They said, “You need to fill out an application. Did you enroll? Were you accepted?” No, but Sonny says, “Ahhh, don’t worry about that.” Ya know, and that’s the way Sonny did everything. The next thing I knew I was a student at Youngstown.
Throughout the film, Vaccaro is placed front and center, filling the camera with his stories, along with his candor and charisma. Neither of these qualities were lost on Youngstown’s basketball coach, who took notice of the young man’s persuasive skills and asked if he’d serve as a recruiting assistant. Not only was Vaccaro happy to oblige, it would lead to his developing the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in 1965 — a high school all-star game that became a college-recruiting extravaganza. It was a huge success, predicated on two key elements: First, Vaccaro recognized that if he could earn the trust of talented basketball players at a young age, he could eventually benefit from future success. Second, college coaches were top-level dealers who needed access to players if their programs and careers were going to thrive. So events like the Roundball — which foreshadowed nationally recognized commodities like McDonald’s All-American Game, or corporate-sponsored summer camps endorsed by Nike, Adidas, and Reebok — were where deals got made. What Vaccaro needed to do was keep the product close, create competition among dealers, and drive up the price.
In the early days it became fairly obvious to many coaches, journalists, and casual observers that they were witnessing the equivalent of a corner hustle. But Vaccaro managed to keep the stigma at arms length, and his entrepreneurial genius was about to initiate a quantum leap into the global market of athletics and fashion. To do so required more than relationships with top-level players, whose value was commensurate with the ebb and flow of a relatively small market. Subsequently, Vaccaro realized that to better utilize athletes as billboards, he needed to sell something “on the players.” That is, he needed something to expand his corner market into a mass market. That something was shoes, and he pitched a line of basketball-specific sneakers to a small company in Beaverton, Oregon that would soon become an unrivaled corporate power in the sports world. In its nascent stages, Nike’s core competency followed the passion of its founder, Phil Knight, who was an avid runner. But Knight was persuaded to make a basketball shoe, in large part because Vaccaro, his new consigliore, was able to deliver college basketball to him on a silver platter with a very basic formula: “pay the coaches.”
Nike did, and according to Armen Keteyian of CBS Sports, “In the span of 12 months [Vaccaro] basically owned college basketball,” by injecting America’s nonprofit higher education system with the corrosive presence of for-profit corporate interests. As many of Sole Man’s commentators acknowledge, Vaccaro accumulated power by working in gray areas with little or no oversight. What the film, and the contemporary landscape of elite college sports, reveals is that those gray areas were ripe for exploitation, allowing Vaccaro and Nike to buy coaches with relative ease. Dan Wentzel of Yahoo Sports says that, without a formidable regulatory response to Nike’s marketing strategy, both the NCAA and many of its member schools were suddenly overwhelmed by a sea of cash, which meant “colleges and universities” simply “became the platform for coaches to get their shoe money.” In essence, Vaccaro’s formula worked.
And as Sole Man reports it, most of his formulas did. But none compare to his recognition of and professional commitment to Michael Jeffrey (soon to be “Air”) Jordan. In what seems an unreasonably self-effacing moment, Vaccaro says, “I don’t have this damn Nostradamus thing. I have no idea what the hell happens, okay. Except I knew he was right, and I said, ‘It’s Jordan’” — who would be the vehicle through which Nike could build a marketing empire. History suggests his predictive powers were prescient, to say the least. But through the advent of “the signature shoe,” Vaccaro came up with another stroke of genius that turned athletes like Jordan into multifaceted assets. The Air Jordan sneaker was the first of its kind, and because Jordan himself would go on to exceed every imaginable athletic and commercial projection, Nike soared. According to Vaccaro, if Michael Jordan “doesn’t hit, Nike’s not where they are today. That doesn’t happen, ladies and gentleman. Everything was Air Jordan.” All of which set the stage for the commercial expansion of the NBA, along with the multi-billion dollar business of sports marketing that now had a way to brand iconic individuals. By identifying Jordan as Nike’s marquee asset, and with the Air Jordan shoe amassing over $100 million in sales in its first year on the market, Vaccaro’s career as a basketball king maker and corporate broker was virtually guaranteed.
Almost inexplicably, however, his relationship with basketball’s new corporate titan didn’t last. And while Sole Man tells of Vaccaro’s removal from Nike — at a time when sales were up 1,800 percent from his first year — it doesn’t fully reveal why. That he was replaced by former USC coach George Raveling —once Vaccaro’s best friend and best man at his wedding — adds drama to an outstanding question, setting the film up for its strongest chapter.
As Vaccaro moved on to establish a new empire at Adidas, Dan Wentzel says the former Nike man wanted “to crush the other side.” And while he may have become accustomed to the lavish domain of corporate boardrooms and private jets, he never lost sight of the fact that the pulse of the market begins and ends in the mall, on the street, and in small gyms around the world. To neutralize the power he helped Nike accumulate, Vaccaro harnessed his connections at the grass roots level and took command of the inner workings of youth and high school basketball. According to Armen Keteyian, “Sonny had such an umbrella over the whole scene … it was so powerful and so wide-spread that nobody could break in.” And if there wasn’t sufficient oversight in the college ranks, at the youth level, “there were no rules, so Sonny was writing the book as it was happening in front of him.”
But George Raveling knew all of Vaccaro’s tricks, and according to former Nike and Adidas executive David Bond, the former best friends “were doing whatever they could to get the key players to win the game,” and “the game was selling shoes.” Now that the commercial potential of the product had grown exponentially in the post-Jordan-information-age, the game of selling shoes became a futures market. As such, assessing the potential value of any given player, regardless of age, became a cottage industry for the unscrupulous who sought to latch on to, or replicate, Vaccaro’s blueprint in the youth basketball community. According to Bond, this was “a whole new world, where these high school kids are jumping [to the NBA] and you had to be in contact with them younger. We needed a lot more hands on deck to understand what was going on down below the college level.”
Absent that understanding, shoe companies risked missing out on the next big thing. Once again, Sonny Vaccaro understood the landscape and the currency of potential better than anyone, and “because Adidas didn’t have the money to sign all these college coaches” Wentzel says, “he basically went right to the high school ranks and said, ‘I’ll get these kids before they go to college.’” The two most notable high school prodigies he signed at Adidas were Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In the case of Bryant, not only did Vaccaro move across the country to be in close contact with the future star, he was also instrumental in the charade that led to Kobe being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, shifting the NBA’s center of power from east to west.
Shortly after Lakers’ general manager Jerry West expressed interest in Bryant, Vaccaro began circulating a rumor that his client might opt to play in Italy (where he grew up) if the New Jersey Nets drafted him. According to Gary Charles, who worked alongside Vaccaro at Adidas, “the story was ninety-nine-and-a-half percent bullshit.” But Vaccaro says he felt it was his “duty to inform people, buyer beware,” and that he had “no compunction about going around telling anyone, especially New Jersey, that the possibility existed that Kobe Bryant might go to Italy.” In his mind, “the rumor had fact to it.” As Gary Charles chuckles, “I wasn’t sure if it was gonna stick, but it stuck,” and Sole Man encourages us to chuckle, too, because Kobe Bryant has been an enormous success in the NBA. But a more careful analysis of a world where grown men will do whatever it takes to sell shoes reveals that there isn’t much to laugh about.
To capture brand loyalty at the grass roots level, Ravelling, Vaccaro and their hired hands flooded youth leagues, teams, and coaches with money, merchandise, and shoes. As Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrman says,
When you really dig in and start to see the effect this has on kids, that’s when it turns your stomach. Everybody just assumes that giving kids a bunch of shoes is a good thing. They assume that’s fine because the kids are benefiting, they’re getting to travel more and play in better tournaments. But this is so corrupting. You see kids who are touched by the shoe companies, who five, six years later are nothing … when they didn’t continue to live up to the standards.
In response to such criticism, Vaccaro indignantly proclaims, “We gave them free shoes, absolutely we did! We fed them, and then we sold our shoes. We never said we weren’t gonna do that, did we?” Of course, the answer is no, they did not. They also did not to discourage youth coaches under contract from securing “charity” status for their teams, effectively operating like drug fronts for both the coaches and the shoe companies. As Wentzel points out, in some cases charity teams bring in well over $500,000 a year, mostly through shoe deals, but 501c3 registration — sometimes with comically loose connections to local community centers or educational institutions — keeps them tax-free. According to youth coaches like Dinos Trigonis, the result of the whole scheme is that it victimizes young players by creating a culture of entitlement and a “rock star environment,” instilling “a false sense of achievement … because Nike’s giving them a free pair of shoes every week.”
Lenny Cooke — highly touted by Vaccaro in the early 2000s — was one of his victims, and Sole Man would be much stronger if stories like his were given more attention. As a rising high school star, Cooke’s potential was discussed in the same breath as that of Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Lebron James. But under the influence of parasites like Vaccaro, he fell into the futures vortex of Nike and Adidas. “Whoever was coming at me with the best sneakers or the most money, that’s who I was playing with,” he recalls. Unfortunately, Cooke was academically ineligible to compete in college. Even if he had had better educational guidance, he was so overflowing with confidence and readily seduced by the lure of NBA riches that college was of no interest. In 2002 he went undrafted, then drifted through European and other minor leagues, with only the occasional sniff at the top flight. Visibly pained by his unfulfilled potential, he now tells kids to “use the game of basketball … don’t let it use you. I let it use me.” No matter how hypnotic Vaccaro’s candor may be, he was all too happy to use whomever he could, if they could help him sell shoes.
Instead of delving deeper into this painful reality, Sole Man closes with Vaccaro’s latest charade, cast as a “crusade” of atonement. According to Armen Keteyian, “He’s seen the wrongs he’s created and now he’s trying to right them.” But how? College and youth basketball have both been institutionally and morally compromised by the injection of “shoe money,” which Vaccaro was instrumental in administering. That compromise was facilitated in the service of for-profit corporations who had no reservation about exploiting the vulnerability of individuals, youth teams, colleges, and universities, buying both players and coaches with as little as a pair of sneakers and as much as multi-million dollar endorsement packages (also known as cheap advertising). According to the oft-cited cliché, it’s all just business. But it’s dirty business, and Vaccaro’s attempt at a clean getaway is driven by the idea that ultimately the NCAA (not Nike, Adidas, CBS, or ESPN), and its attempt to maintain amateur regulations, is to blame for the corruption of amateur sports.
Sole Man indulges this narrative by outlining Vaccaro’s class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, along with former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon and lawyer Michael Hausfeld. For Hausfield, who’s handled major cases related to the Holocaust and apartheid in South Africa, the suit (which O’Bannon won, and is under appeal) is designed to do “away with the notion of amateur athletics as interpreted, or self-defined by the NCAA.” While it’s inarguable that that definition and interpretation has been manipulated and corrupted within the NCAA and its member schools, Vaccaro’s solution to the problem echoes one of his legendary formulas: “pay the players.” The ultimate problem with this conclusion, which Sole Man fails to sufficiently explore, is that it would hasten the full commodification of athletics at colleges and universities that have been founded on, and preserved with, the fundamental belief that higher education isn’t just business. Or as Terry Eagleton recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Educating the young, like protecting them from serial killers, should be regarded as a social responsibility, not as a matter of profit.”
Lest we forget, Sonny Vaccaro’s career was strictly a matter of commercial profit. So, while it may be appealing and convenient to reduce hypocrisy in college sports to a workers’ rights issue, it won’t eradicate corruption in youth, high school, or college sports. It will only justify and legalize it, capitulating to a corner hustler’s last bait and switch — which will ultimately serve as a testament to the marvelous and twisted genius that Sole Man celebrates.