The relationship between Sonny Vaccaro and the NCAA is a well-documented one, and the antipathy between the two parties has been there for years.
In the latest twist in the Vaccaro/NCAA battle, the governing body is going after Vaccaro in relation to his involvement in the lawsuit some former players filed against the NCAA, Collegiate Licensing Company and EA Sports.
Vaccaro is an unpaid consultant for the plaintiffs in this case, which includes Ed O’Bannon, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson just to name a few.
They’re suing the NCAA, CLC and EA Sports due to the fact that those entities continue to make money off of their likenesses well after their college careers have ended.
According to court documents filed back in June the NCAA wants records from Vaccaro in regards to his relationships with some of the plaintiffs, not to mention his conversations with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and copies of every speech Vaccaro has given in the last seven years.
The NCAA’s attorneys use words like “agent,” “runner” and “broker” to paint Vaccaro’s livelihood coming off the backs of players. The players’ attorneys say Vaccaro criticized the NCAA long before this suit, and that the NCAA hasn’t denied investigating Vaccaro and now wants to accuse him of improprieties.
“This is scorched-earth litigation,” the players write.
Counters the NCAA: “Vaccaro and his organization are at the heart of decisions and financial careers of former student athletes. Vaccaro’s participation in gathering plaintiffs is directly relevant to the merits of the claims as well as the qualifications of the class members.”
There was a compromise of sorts between Vaccaro and the NCAA, as the governing body was able to get custodial records from his three organizations, communications between Vaccaro and the plaintiffs, camp/tournament documents that use player likenesses and records of payments to and from players.
The NCAA’s lawyers have also alleged that Vaccaro has given ex-athletes money in exchange for their joining the lawsuit (that the plaintiffs hope becomes a class-action suit) as plaintiffs, something the lawyers representing the athletes have denied.
According to the NCAA, ex-Michigan basketball player Eric Riley testified that his camp got money from Vaccaro’s “Hoops That Help” foundation after being encouraged to join the suit. Ex-Connecticut hoops star Tate George received $3,000 in 2008 and ’09 from Vaccaro and changed his mind to be added to the suit, the NCAA says.
The players claim Riley testified he decided to join this suit long before his mentoring program got the donation. They say George testified that his delay — after his basketball camp got two donations — was to analyze how it would affect his position on the board of the NBA Retired Players Association, his family and UConn. (George was indicted in March on charges he ran a $2 million Ponzi scheme related to real estate.)
It should be known by the end of October whether or not the players are successful in their quest to make this a class action suit, with the trial set to begin in February.
A case of this magnitude was sure to result in some interesting legal strategies, and the NCAA’s move to pull Vaccaro into the fray certainly falls into that category.
But will it be enough to turn the lawsuit in their favor and ultimately result in the defendants being allowed to continue their practices when it comes to the use of player likenesses? That remains to be seen.