This is the 10th installment in our Things We’d Change in Sports series. To see the full list, visit this page.
Sonny Vaccaro, the man who once signed Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to seven-figure sneaker contracts right out of high school and tried to get Adidas to offer LeBron James $100 million before he signed with Nike, might be the world’s foremost authority on the marketing power of teenage basketball stars.
So when you ask him what Zion Williamson might be worth to a shoe company right now — not in five years, not when he gets drafted in June, but at this very moment as March Madness approaches for Duke — Vaccaro’s opinion carries some weight.
“I think it would go off the wall,” Vaccaro said. “Zion, at this point in time, is as popular an athlete as there is on earth.”
Williamson, no doubt, is going to be very rich, very soon. The minute he declares for the NBA draft, the charismatic forward with a superhero strength and above-the-rim explosion is going to have endorsement deals offered to him that may even total nine figures before he takes his first dribble in professional basketball.
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But it begs the question: Why shouldn’t he have all that now in addition to his scholarship, room and board? Who, or what, would be harmed if Williamson — whose mere presence in the upcoming NCAA tournament will boost television ratings, generate millions of social media comments and juice ticket demand — got paid his market value by Nike or McDonald’s to post a promotional message to his 2.6 million followers on Instagram?
The only reason he can’t is because the NCAA has arbitrarily, in our view, prevented athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness in the service of “amateurism,” a concept no longer relevant anywhere but in American college sports.
While the idea of schools paying salaries to college athletes would be controversial and complex, particularly given gender equity Title IX considerations, allowing them to trade on their name, image and likeness is the obvious free-market solution to America’s growing unease with the inequity of a system that artificially restricts many athletes from capitalizing on their value.
“This has nothing to do with (colleges) paying somebody (to play a sport),” said Vaccaro, who was instrumental in former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon becoming the lead plaintiff in a landmark antitrust lawsuit in 2009 against the NCAA. “They give you a scholarship for your ability to play a sport, but your name, image and likeness always stays with you. It’s yours.”
That doesn’t mean everybody playing college sports would suddenly make millions of dollars. For a sensation like Zion, whose otherworldy dunks made him a social media star when he was 16, the race to sign him to endorsement deals in high school would have undoubtedly been intense. Maybe a big school’s star quarterback gets a car in exchange for appearing on a billboard for a car dealership, while the offensive lineman is the spokesman for a local restaurant. For the vast majority of high-level college athletes, however, a few thousand bucks to sign autographs at a mall might be a good deal.
The beauty of it is, the market decides.
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Just like the Olympics, whose adherence to the original idea of amateurism eroded throughout the 1970s and 1980s to the point where full-on professionals were allowed to compete by 1992, the NCAA would have no problem evolving around this new paradigm.
Making money, after all, isn’t the issue. Already, NCAA rules allow someone who has been a paid professional in baseball, for instance, to come back and play college football as an amateur.
And by now, everyone who has been paying attention knows that money already flows through the system from shoe companies to high schools, AAU basketball teams and 7-on-7 football programs, potentially influencing the college decisions of high-profile athletes. If Adidas was working to ensure particular basketball players went to schools affiliated with Adidas, as the FBI’s investigation revealed, would you rather that transaction happen in a transparent manner or under the table, where it’s often the adults around the player who end up profiting the most?
It would also alleviate much of the angst during situations like Feb. 20 against North Carolina, when Williamson’s Nike sneaker exploded and he laid on the ground in significant pain, bringing into focus the injury risk of high-level athletes who aren’t getting compensated anywhere near the interest they create.
Though Williamson’s long-term outlook appears to be fine, the amount of interest that injury created — and the calls for him to just stop playing college basketball altogether — was further evidence that college sports will be stuck in a hypocritical past unless it allows name, image and likeness rights.
“Because of social media, a basketball star is created before he’s even a legitimate star,” Vaccaro said. “Why is there so much attention given to this 18-year old kid playing on a team that has always had great athletes? Mike (Krzyzewski) has won championships and had great players before, but no one has ever talked about it like this until he got hurt. He’s the ‘it’ guy that America creates. I wish it wouldn’t have happened, but anyone with a brain that isn’t biased would understand name, image and likeness rights now.”